Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan: The United States Never Learns

Cambodians killed in the aftermath of the U.S.-Indochina War (Photo: Galen Frysinger)

Cambodians killed in the “killing fields” aftermath of the U.S.-Indochina War (Photo: Galen Frysinger)

Daniel N. White

I recently came across a most worthwhile book at the library: The Road to the Killing Fields:  The Cambodian War of 1970-1975, by Wilfred P. Deac, published in 1997.  There’s no shortage of books out there about the Vietnam War, but our satellite wars in Cambodia and Laos have gotten almost no attention.  No attention by scholarship—this book is one of two the Austin library has on the war in Cambodia, and no attention by readers—my copy had the unworn look of an unread book.

Deac writes a good short history of the troubled and problem-ridden country and society of Cambodia, and provides a clear and objective account of how the US war in Vietnam came to Cambodia and how the side in Cambodia’s part of it we sponsored lost.

As far as the war itself, its course and outcome represented a gross and terrible failure of America’s political and intellectual leadership.  The military odds our Cambodian client state faced were from the beginning prima-facie insuperable and there could never have been any chance of their prevailing.  The US always cynically regarded the Cambodian war as a useful sideshow that might distract enough North Vietnamese Army (NVA) effort to improve the chances of South Vietnam surviving.  There is no more sordid and reprehensible action of state than starting a war that you know you will lose, and we and our Cambodian client state’s leaderships did this.*  We have never faced up to this, then, or since, and we show no signs of ever doing so.

The Cambodians on our side were largely urban and town-dwellers, who threw their lot in with a corrupt military dictatorship out of an inflamed anti-Vietnamese patriotic fervor.  They fought a losing war against superior numbers of their fellow (rural, mostly) Cambodians who were trained and supported by the NVA, which was happy to have the Khmer Rouge do what it handily could have and would have done at any time of its choosing, namely defeat and obliterate the US-Cambodian client state.

Allegedly on behalf of our Cambodian allies (but more probably because of a surplus of air assets in the theater ever since the end of the bombing campaign against North Vietnam) the US Air Force waged a secret and later a huge and unreported and enormously destructive bombing campaign in Cambodia.  It failed miserably.  From accounts of Cambodians living in Khmer Rouge-controlled countryside, the USAF apparently regarded any structure as a target and bombed every town and village in KR-controlled Cambodia, as the USAF also did in North Korea during that war.   The failed air campaign against rural Cambodia has gotten even less attention than the USAF’s against North Korea.**

That is one valuable lesson from this book: that US airpower, as destructive as it was (and is), cannot win wars.  A second lesson, even more vital for the US to learn (or relearn), is how corruption bred by American intervention dooms efforts at so-called nation building.

The Cambodia “nationalistic” government the US supported was terribly corrupt. The venality, the paramount desire for personal self-enrichment at society’s expense was, after the unfavorable military position on the ground, the key reason for nationalist Cambodia’s defeat by the Khmer Rouge.  But the problem was not just Cambodian corruption; it was our government’s willingness to tolerate it, to ignore our responsibility for it, and to do nothing to correct it no matter how badly it hurt our war efforts.

From p. 142 of Deac:

“William Harben, chief of the U.S. Embassy’s political section in 1972, was convinced that ‘American toleration of military corruption led directly to defeat.'”

American economic aid was stolen by the Cambodian national ruling elites, military aid was stolen and trafficked to the Khmer Rouge, and nationalist Cambodian institutions failed to perform their functions and duties on account of graft-induced inefficiencies.  Citizen loyalty to the government was killed by this.  Endemic corruption caused societal and political failure. The US government enabled it in Cambodia and we equally continue to enable it today in Iraq and Afghanistan, and equally refuse to do anything about it even as it destroys any prospects for our policies succeeding in those countries.

Corruption in Cambodia remained paramount in the mid-1990s yet, as Deac tell us on p.241:

“Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng was quoted [approx. 1992, while the Khmer Rouge were still fighting the Cambodian government, courtesy in part of border sanctuaries in Thailand and Chinese and US CIA covert aid]  as saying that the ‘Khmer Rouge is not the number one issue.   It is corruption.’  He explained that the government’s two hundred thousand troops could not defeat five to six thousand K.R. because of the corruption problem ‘in our ranks–in our army ranks.‘  (Italics mine) In the civilian sector, investors found that accomplishing anything involved payoffs at virtually every level.  The corruption gave rise to a level of crime that could exist only with high-level abetment.  For example, Phnom Penh became a major money-laundering center….”

The parallels with Afghanistan are painfully obvious.  Why is the US government so tolerant of our client states’ corruption when we know, from the historical record, that such corruption is fatal to their and our long-term objectives and interests?  Does our tolerance for corruption in others working with us indicate an American appetite for the same?  Is our unwillingness to fight corruption evidence that corruption is a problem beyond our (or perhaps anyone’s) ability to fix?

There were yet more obvious impossibilities we and our clients ignored.  Cambodia’s population was perhaps seven million in the early 1970s, and it is doubtful that the Cambodian government ever controlled as much as half of that.   The army (~7 divisions, plus a navy and air force) was therefore raised out of a population of perhaps three million at most.  The US, then in Cambodia as now in Afghanistan and Iraq, put an impossibly large percentage of the population under arms, in a country that lacked the industrial and economic means to keep that many men under arms and provide for their maintenance and provisioning.  Cambodia (and Iraq and Afghanistan) also lacked the technically trained personnel to maintain the American-styled armed forces’ our aid policies gave them, especially the high-tech weaponry.  Cambodia then attempted to fight a war without coherent strategic objective and without any reasonable outcome of success, a war that we gave (or forced on) them, one against their own countrymen.***

The obvious impossibilities of this, the main US political-military policy in Cambodia and presently in the Middle East today, remained as unremarked upon then as they are now today.  It is a truly a stupendous intellectual and moral failure by all the parties concerned, then and now.

As far as what the Cambodian war cost the US taxpayer, Deac suggests: “The republic’s five year war cost the United States about a million dollars a day–a total of $1.85 billion, $1.18 billion of it military aid–plus another $7 billion for air bombardment.”

Adjusting these dollar figures for inflation requires multiplying by five, or perhaps six, to get current 2015 dollars.  Looking at our Afghanistan adventure, we are spending at least, near as I can tell, seven to eight times in real dollar terms on an Afghan army that is ostensibly 50% larger.   I do not have the current Order of Battle numbers for Afghanistan**** but the question needs answering as to why it costs in constant dollars near an order of magnitude more to establish a client state light infantry army now than it did in 1973.  It certainly isn’t because the Afghan or Iraqi armies are more capable.  Bad as the Cambodian army was, it was, from Deac’s account, apparently a much better fighting force than our Afghan client state’s army ever will be.  And certainly better than our Iraqi client state’s now mostly defunct army ever was or will be again, assuming we manage somehow to reconstitute it.

Why do our client-state armies nowadays cost so damned much more now than then and why are they worse?   Why is so much US foreign policy geared toward creating client-state armies as the key institution of our state-creation and support policies abroad, when we have such a miserable track record at it?   And how is it we lack the intellectual and moral grip to examine this issue with any rigor?

And let’s not overlook the blood costs to Cambodia.  Deac gives no figures for civilian casualties from the war, which, assuming equivalent civilian losses from equivalent bombing tonnages in Cambodia as occurred in Vietnam, had to have amounted to 100,000, or more;  far more than army battlefield casualties.  Sadly and horribly, whatever the blood costs of the war were, they were dwarfed by the Khmer Rouge postwar atrocities.   We here in the US mourn the 50,000+ Americans killed in the Vietnam War; we continually overlook how much worse the casualties were for our allies, and we are blind to how much material destruction the wars caused those countries.

People need to read Deac’s book instead of sweeping the war we gave Cambodia under the rug.  When we as a country choose not to learn, well, we make the same mistakes, cluelessly again and again, as we’re doing right now in Afghanistan and Iraq.  And we’re obviously failing there again too, just as we did in Cambodia.  Deac’s book, for all its flaws, leads any perceptive reader to asking hard questions about us as a people and society and perhaps that’s why nobody reads it.  But we all ought to.  We all need to be asking these questions, or we’ll never get answers and solutions to them.

Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to.  He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about.  He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now.  He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb.  He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.

*The only thing more cynical and evil might be our (and the Chinese) militarily and financially supporting the Khmer Rouge as we did after the Vietnamese threw them out of power in 1978.  Deac makes no discussion of this policy of ours, a gross failing of the book.  This utterly vile US policy has to date managed to escape the attention of anyone in US brain trades, journalism, or politics.

**One interesting side-effect of the USAF’s destruction of North Korea was that George Blake, the British traitor/spy second only to Philby for the damage done, saw all this destruction and civilian killing while a NKPA prisoner during the war, and his decision to spy for Moscow came from his revulsion at seeing it.

***Another major failure of this book is its not using Sam Adam’s truly excellent piece “A Cambodian Interlude,” both the 1975 Harper’s article and Adams’ posthumous 1994 memoirs.  Sam Adams was the great CIA Order of Battle analyst who fought unsuccessfully against deliberate MACV (the US military command in Vietnam) OB fakery—Adams’ OB numbers were twice or more than MACV’s were on VC strength.   It was a huge scandal of the Vietnam War that never got the attention it deserved.  It later led to the biggest libel trial in US history—Westmoreland vs CBS, 1983.  Westy lost, badly.  Adams’ article/chapter told how the Pentagon deliberately faked Khmer Rouge numbers starting in 1971 the same way they had faked VC numbers from 1965 to Tet in 1968.  The CIA went along with it this time from the git-go, and Adams quit the CIA because of this dishonesty repeating itself.  The Pentagon probably did this fakery for the same reasons of institutional and individual moral dishonesty as before, but Adams couldn’t say for sure.  It led to the same result of battlefield failure, too.  As far as current war OB issues, well, the military has decided to ignore OB.  No kidding.  See my story HERE.  The truth might hurt, but lies kill you.

**** From all accounts the Afghan and Iraqi armies have the identical set of problems of ‘potted soldiers’ that America’s proxy armies in Vietnam and Cambodia had throughout their existence, so any Order of Battle numbers have to be regarded with great suspicion.  ‘Potted soldiers’—soldiers officially on the unit payrolls who aren’t ever there, but who still get paid every payday.  Unit commanding officers collect most of the money; the would-be soldier gets a cut and doesn’t get inconvenienced by being in the army and getting shot at.  Win-Win for everyone, right?

12 thoughts on “Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan: The United States Never Learns

  1. Why is the corruption tolerated? To use an overused phrase, “follow the money.” In Vietnam, anyone with an eye connected to a brain could see the corruption that started with the supply clerks in the warehouses and had to extend to the top of the American command, to be tolerated as it was. And that in turn had to be tolerated by the political leadership back home. Which means everyone was “washing their hands.”

    As to the Air Force and its “success” with bombing, there are only two campaigns the Air Force ever ran in any war that had immediate battlefield effect, and they had to be dragged kicking and screaming to accomplish both: the oil campaign against Ploesti and the German synthetic industry in the spring and summer of 1944, despite the fact that within 90 days of both, the Germans essentially “ran out of gas.” The other is the Brenner Pass campaign in the winter of 44-45 (the background for Joe Heller’s novel, Catch-22), which brought the German Army to its knees in northern Italy and led within 20 days of the 1945 ground offensive commencing after the campaign had reduced their supplies to 40% of minimum requirements, to the surrender of all German forces in Italy. The AF hates both campaigns because they actually had a battlefield effect that helped their real enemy, the Army, and diverted them from their war crimes against the cities, which is what any good believer in Douhet always wants to do. LeMay told MacNamara in 1945 that “if the outcome had been different” he’d be the one in the war crimes dock for the US bombing of Japan.

    One can use the refrain from the song “Where have all the flowers gone?” – when will they ever learn? – to deal with US military policy going back to King Phillip’s War 300+ years ago. Reading how the US blundered into Korea is nothing but the same story of how the US blundered into Vietnam, is nothing but the same story of how the US blundered into Iraq/Afghanistan. The United States has always been the living proof of Marc Bloch’s statement: “Misunderstanding of the present is the inevitable consequence of ignorance of the past.”

    • When I first arrived in Saigon in July of 1970, no one knew what to do with me. Consequently, I laid around a stinking transit barracks for a month waiting for orders. One night I found myself in a local bar having a beer with a fellow enlisted man — from the air force, if I remember correctly — who tried to educate me on the way things worked in the world’s biggest whorehouse (what America had made of South Vietnam’s principal city). The U.S. military did not pay us indentured servants in dollars, but in a script called MPC, or “Military Payment Certificates” that we could use to purchase items from the PX, or “Post Exchange.” If we wanted to go out on the local economy, though, we had to exchange our MPC for Vietnamese piasters, at the rate of 118 piasters for 1 “dollar” equivalent in MPC. My newly discovered friend from the air force told me that this exchange rate “sucked,” big time, and that I could do much better for myself if I would go to the PX and, using my ration card and MPC, buy a bottle of good booze and a carton of cigarettes. These, he said, I should take to a local Vietnamese bar where mama-san who ran the joint would give me a few drinks, a girl for the evening, and some MPC script sufficient to sweeten the deal to my satisfaction. As a testament to my youthful inexperience and stupidity, I said something about the “black market” and how the “VC” got all their stuff there, or so my instructors at Counter Insurgency School had taught me. My new friend just looked at me as though I had the IQ of a planaria worm, but he didn’t argue. “You’ll learn,” he said.

      A few months later, I did start to learn. The beginnings of my education took place in Hong Kong where I had gone for a week’s R&R. As a free port, Honk Kong had many currency exchange shops, mostly run by expatriates from India. In these places I discovered big bulletin boards prominently announcing to interested customers that they could exchange 1 U.S. dollar for 476 Vietnamese piasters. “You sons of bitches!” I thought to myself, consumed in outrage as I learned the awful truth. Not only had my own government sent me to Vietnam where I did not wish to go and where I had nothing of worth to do, but they would only pay me twenty-five cents on the dollar should I wish to spend any of my pathetic wages where and as I saw it. Immediately upon returning to Vietnam from Hong Kong, as I passed thru Saigon on the way to my remote outpost duty station, I seemed to notice for the first time all the GIs standing outside the PX with their ration cards making deals with Vietnamese taxi drivers waving wads of MPC script at them. I understood completely.

  2. Further on to the above, bombing peasant countries never works. In 1950, when the Chinese were contemplating their intervention in North Korea, they concluded they could survive even US use of the atomic bomb in response, since there was nothing in China that could be bombed that was the kind of target that would bring everything to a halt. The same was true in North Vietnam (unless the US had been willing in 1965 to bomb Hanoi as it did in December 1972, as Giap noted in his memoirs), and is true in Afghanistan and to a degree in Iraq.

    • In our economics courses in college, we learned of something called “The Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility,” or “Diminishing Returns.” Basically, this law — applied to military bombing — holds that if you start by destroying “high value” targets, then you must inevitably move on to lower-value targets until you wind up bombing relatively useless targets. Even worse, you find that it costs more and more to destroy less and less until you find yourself spending everything to destroy nothing. Thus, In Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, for instance, the U.S. began by bombing a few easily identifiable industrial and military targets until the intended Southeast Asian victims dispersed all their production and distribution assets so as to eventually require the U.S. to send an aircraft carrier battle group halfway around the world to destroy a bamboo bridge and some bicycles that the locals could repair or replace for practically nothing in no time at all. Oh, yes, and all those hideously expensive, shot-down aircraft and hard-to-replace pilots didn’t help the U.S. balance sheet or war aims one bit. This sort of thing appears to have happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well. I think the mad dog bomber, Air Force General Curtis LeMay once suggested bombing Vietnam “back into the stone age,” to which someone sane replied: “What if they’re already there?” High Tech bombing to make the rubble bounce. The American Way of Conspicuous Waste. Thorstein Veblen had quite a bit say about this sort of ruinous vainglory in his classic study, The Theory of the Leisure Class.

  3. I read all articles and the commentaries they generate. They all show me how superior are the rest of the contributors than me. I am still and old woman, a mother and a wife who loves books. Books are the most beautiful tool civilization has given us to learn from our errors. And our best fiends, they never lie even if they cause pain with their truth. The reader needs to be particularly curious to absorb not only the written word but to research for the missing jewels that are hidden behind the obvious. Why we complicate our lives looking for explanations of our errors, why we are not honest with ourselves and we translate in words what we understand with our brain but fail to act on the message we receive. Maybe we leave everything to “mañana” or to the “ones at the top” to solve it. That is the beginning of a chain of events that has brought us to the today almost insoluble situation. Why insoluble? Because most of us are stuck in making others the guilty party. We have fallen in the routine of the repetitive acknowledgement of the error and no interest in looking for the change. Yes, we have stopped thinking proactively and we seat to passively nurse our wounds. We are fascinated by the politician with enough verbosity to sing to our soul the song that we want to hear. WE ARE WRONG! We need to wake up. Look at our school agenda and go back to Humanities, not the repetitive chant that calms our insecurity. And we need to start immediately to retrain our educators. We need to get rid of the testing that avoids the reasoning involved in the essay writing. We need teachers that look for the spark in each of their students. We need teachers that explain the pupil the beauty behind the logic in Mathematics, that an equation can be the perfect image of a thought, that Anatomy is the discovery of a wonderful machine, that can be tuned to the demands of everyday life, that the brain is power if used to better life but becomes the simplest form of manure when wrongly used, that the community where we live becomes the 2015 tribe of our ancestors with the same responsibilities and supportive if one family is in need, that children are our most precious resource and we are all responsible for their wellbeing and development, that religious beliefs are private and cannot be imposed by the public school or by our politicians, that nature and its creatures are an everyday source of wonder and we must respect them, that without that respect we are missing a large part of our most important source of learning. Nature can be an extraordinary teacher aid or maybe it should be the other way around nature is the teacher and the human teacher is the teacher aid to nature. We must start the fixing of our society by preparing our next generation for a better world because if we do not do it now our failure will preclude our extinction.

    All these are down to earth thoughts. We do not solve the structure of our problem by starting to clean the pent house, but by eliminating the termites, and the corrosion in our basement. It is a dirty job but we must do it. We must change our ways. Our society was created by humans for humans to prosper ( as humans, as per nature’s rule by developing our spiritual abilities, not prosper as $$$ machines) and each of us has a job to do in it. Utopian? No way! Remember our very human Founding Fathers and the historical times when they got together to make a reality of their dream. What can be a bigger example of an Utopian ideal! And they achieved it! We just had entangled in a wrinkle, let’s iron that wrinkle and keep on going. We only need an honest leader that brings together all the expectations of the postal person that delivers our mail every day, the bus driver that very early in the morning takes us to our job and them bring us back to our homes, the bank teller that smiles at each of us when we reach his/her window, the food store employee that keeps the shelves well stocked, the handy man that fixes what is broken. Those among others are the base of our society. The working people that keeps our society going. They might have children too, and also dreams for those children’s future. They are all ready to participate. Let’s teach them to make use of the most powerful tool they have to correct society, their right to vote. Let’s keep them informed about the candidates. Let’s force those candidates to clearly show their individual program and how they plan to achieve it. But we need to believe because if we do not believe in the Utopia, it becomes just a word.

  4. Speaking of books, studies, corruption, and failing to learn learning from failed imperial military quagmires: after I returned to the U.S. from Vietnam and got out of the Navy in February of 1972, I immediately returned to college so as to resume my long-interrupted education, focusing intensively on Japanese and Chinese languages so as to qualify for the Foreign Studies program in Taiwan. Somewhere I had read about WWII veterans who had taken advantage of the G.I. Bill to study for several years in Paris and other European capitals, with all the “cultural” prospects ( i.e., “wine, women, and song”) that such worldly locales implied. So I decided to do something similar in Asia. When my WWII-generation mother heard of my post-military plans, she said simply: “You’ve gone Asiatic.”

    At any rate, among my several academic requirements, I had to take a course in Sino-American relations. The professor, learning of my previous experience in Southeast Asia, assigned me a paper to write comparing the American intervention in the Chinese Civil War (1945 to 1949) with the American intervention in the First and Second Vietnamese Wars of Independence (1945 to 1972-and-ongoing). I had available to me at the time four principle sources of historical reference: Stilwell and the American Experience in China 1911-1945, by Barbara Tuchman; Street Without Joy, by Bernard Fall; Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, by Frances FitzGerald; and The Best and the Brightest, by David Halberstam. When asked to provide a single-sentence summation of what I had learned, I replied: “Change the Chinese names to Vietnamese names and the story reads pretty much the same.” I got no argument from the professor. Fast forward thirty-seven years to October 25, 2009 and we have my fellow Vietnam Veteran Daniel Ellsberg giving an interview on The Real News Network where he explains why America failed in Vietnam: “For the same reason it was in Afghanistan. Let me repeat the same words, just change the place names. That’s what I could do with the papers I wrote 30 years ago and they would apply now.” How painfully true.

    So much for the succinct, bottom-line conclusion. Yet this recurring motif of ruinous American failure, if not manifest madness, has to rest on some enduring quality of human nature, both as regards the formulators of official U.S. policy and their real world victims. The word “corruption” — if not, “adaptability” — does come to mind here, as the above article properly addresses. But as Professor Tuchman noted in the case of China and its corrupt, ineffective government during and after World War II:

    “Cynicism about the war and a lapse into increasing passivity was the result [of American policy]. An attitude of “Let the Allies do it” prevailed in the teahouses of Chungking after the fall of Burma. To use barbarians to fight other barbarians was a traditional principle of Chinese statecraft which now more than ever appeared not only advisable but justified. Chinese opinion, according to a foreign resident, held that not only was China justified in remaining passive after five years of resistance; “it was her right to get as much as possible out of her allies while they fought.” The exercise of this right became the Government’s chief war effort. The long endeavor to shake off the foreigners and emerge from dependence had not succeeded; China’s problems had been too great. With dwindling capacity to cope with its own circumstances, the Kuomintang applied all its energy to making dependence pay.” (page 303)

    Furthermore:

    “Here was the basis of the fundamental cultural clash between [Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek’s] and [U.S. General] Stilwell’s theories of war. Throughout Stilwell’s mission every action and decision of the Generalissimo had been molded by the principle of hoarding resources and waiting until one barbarian should defeat the other. From the Chinese point of view this was sensible and justified. From the point of view of the Americans, who were providing the resources and believed in taking action to command fate, it was unacceptable and unjustified. There could be no meeting across this divide.” (page 490)

    So, again to summarize the basic principle of human adaptability to circumstances not of one’s own design or control, the foreign recipients of America’s material and managerial militarism (1) come to depend upon that largesse as an expected entitlement, (2) will make that dependence pay — for themselves individually, if not for their country as a whole — and (3) will hoard whatever of value they can grab until they can spirit it away to safer havens abroad or else turn it to purposes entirely their own without the slightest concern for what American political leaders tell the American people about the reason for all the monumental waste and loss. “The United States does not want allies, it wants vassals,” as Russian President Vladimir Putin accurately observes. The Unites States wants dependents, and has gotten them. Unfortunately for the poor victims, both foreign and domestic, the foreign dependents, for their part, will make that dependence pay. And the American taxpayer and foot soldier will do the paying.

    Call it “corruption.” Call it “adaptability.” Call it “survival.” But whatever we call it, we should understand that America’s erstwhile victims — or “dependents” — will do whatever they can to make an otherwise intolerable situation at least bearable, and — with a little inventive cleverness wherever possible — even a bit profitable for themselves. “Follow the Money,” yes. And Make Dependence Pay. Then “go your own way as if the United States had never come.”

  5. At the risk of appearing to be a ranting “gold bug,” I am forced to point out how incredibly cheap is the cost of money in the modern world. Once upon a time, any ordinary Joe or Jane Citizen could take his/her paper dollar to any bank in the country and exchange it for gold coin. I believe it was 1933 when, under the strain of the Great Depression, that option was terminated– indeed, private citizens were told to surrender their gold to the government. Foreign sovereigns holding debt instruments of USA could still demand repayment in gold, but Nixon ended that in 1971. As Mr. Ben Bernanke pointed out some years ago, the Treasury Dept. holds the key to a Magic Machine (I’m paraphrasing, obviously) that cranks out an, in theory, infinite (until there’s no more supply of the special paper/linen blend) quantity of things still called dollars, but backed by absolutely nothing of intrinsic value. Any ordinary Joe or Jane can take one of these to any bank in the country and–unless the teller is in a particularly surly mood–exchange that dollar for…wait for it…a fresher, crispier version of the same thing of NO intrinsic value. With the passage of the years and the increasing mountain of national debt, this dollar buys less and less useful items like food or services like medical care or insurance on your dwelling place. This is called a fiat currency system, fiat meaning “Let there be…” (“Fiat lux” = “Let there be light”); ergo, “Fiat a fresh trillion dollars of US currency.” Like magic, it appears from out of thin air. This is the, ahem, great service provided by the Federal Reserve System, now helmed by Ms. Yellen. Of course every nation now uses fiat currency and are practically all engaged in a race to beggar their neighbors by printing, printing, printing, making their own national currencies worth less (hey, look at this: remove the space between those words and what do you get? Worthless!) to make their own exports more attractive to importing nations. It should be commonsensically plain to a 6th Grader that ultimately everyone will lose in such an insane game…except those at the top of the pyramid who have accumulated so many units of the intrinsically worthless currency that they will comfortably survive the decaying purchasing power thereof. Meanwhile, the rest of us are expected to all smile and continue to play the game, accepting the fiat dollars as income and exchanging them for goods and services in the marketplace. As long as those who cry out “The Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes!” are a tiny minority they can be isolated and dismissed as crackpots (take a bow, Ron Paul!).

    I apologize for the length of that preamble; hadn’t intended by a long shot to write that many words! So, let us now turn to the field of modern warfare. Even though Americans in general have been relentlessly brainwashed into believing we don’t live in a class-based society, it’s pretty well understood that the sons and daughters of those at the top very seldom, if ever, are put at risk on a battlefield. (Take a bow, George W. Bush, descendant of the old-money Prescott-Bush clan!) So, with no family skin, so to speak, in the game, it’s alarmingly easy to commit trillions (trillions!) of these fiat currency units to utterly futile–and more importantly to this writer, morally repugnant, utterly unjustified–war efforts. By the governmental power to levy taxes, a practically unlimited number of dollars can be acquired to drive these campaigns on. Oops, we’re running low on bombs. No problem, here’s a fresh from the printing press ten billion bucks more to rebuild the inventory. The people can complain all they want about the burden, but the legal ramifications of not paying one’s taxes are punishing indeed. And when the surviving troops return home, how pathetically cheap is the cost of saying “Thank you for your service.” The System is corrupt from the top on down, so there are dollars galore available to keep “defense industry” corporations pleasingly plump, the generals and admirals cheerful, and eventually recipients of this largesse in form of corrupt officials in the foreign lands so blessed as to have US military intervention visited upon them. Yes, as Gen. Smedley Butler pointed out decades ago, war is a racket. And somehow government officials, apologists for the fat cats enjoying the greatest benefits in this game, always find the gall to proclaim “Our intentions were the best, we were only trying to help the suffering people of ______________” (Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan, fill in the blank). Why learn from past miserable failures when the cost to YOU, the benefactors of the racket, is so incredibly cheap? Personally, I ache for the day when this whole lousy house of cards comes tumbling down.

    • The Fed now essentially gives “free” money to Wall Street CEOs who load up their company balance sheets with debt while using the free money to buy back company stock, which artificially raises the stock price and therefore the stock-option “compensation” of the CEOs and fellow shareholders. Any hint by the Fed that they might cut off or reduce the flow of free money causes an immediate panic and stock sell-off. So the Fed has essentially trapped itself into an endless round of feeding the free-money addicts that its own policy has created.

      Meanwhile, those of us who used to get a real rate of return on the savings we deposited in banks and credit unions now get insulting monthly statements informing us how our money has earned us a whopping five-hundredths-of-one percent interest — literally a few pennies. Meanwhile the Russians and Chinese keep buying gold by the ton while dumping their U.S. dollars for anything real they can buy with them. This doesn’t look good at all for the average U.S. working stiff or us retired old farts subsiding on savings and meager monthly Social Security checks. Somehow, I keep thinking “1929” and “2008” because, well, you know …

      • CEO compensation at 300 X the working stiffs’ is surely just the average or maybe median figure, not representing the genuine extreme. Japan, thoroughly committed to capitalism, passed legislation some time ago limiting executive compensation to (I believe I’m recalling accurately) 17 X worker compensation! What a helluva contrast with the good ol’ US of A!! Bullets, you want bullets? Just saw a news item the other day about how many billions–BILLIONS–of bullets are stockpiled for domestic use (various levels of law enforcement) here. Don’t recall exact figure, but rest assured, there are enough for every last citizen to be shot to shreds by police and/or National Guard. Isn’t that a comforting thought?

      • Something I like to keep in mind, from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (1937):

        “… It greatly confuses the issue to assume … that social status is determined solely by income. Economically, no doubt, there are only two classes, the rich and the poor, but socially there is a whole hierarchy of classes, and the manners and traditions learned by each class in childhood are not only very different but – and this is the essential point – generally persist from birth to death [emphasis added]. Hence the anomalous individuals that you find in every class of society. … you find petty shopkeepers whose income is far lower than that of the bricklayer and who, nevertheless, consider themselves (and are considered) the bricklayer’s social superiors; you find board-school boys running Indian provinces and public school men touting vacuum cleaners. If social stratification corresponded precisely to economic stratification, the public-school man would assume a cockney accent the day his income dropped below £200 a year. But does he? On the contrary, he immediately becomes twenty times more Public School than before. He clings [emphasis added] to the Old School Tie as to a life-line. And even the [“H”-less] millionaire, though sometimes he goes to an elocutionist and learns a B.B.C accent, seldom succeeds in disguising himself as completely as he would like to. It is in fact very difficult to escape from the class into which you have been born [emphasis added].

        As prosperity declines, social anomalies grow commoner [emphasis added]. You don’t get more [“H”-less] millionaires, but you do get more and more public-school men touting vacuum cleaners and more and more small shopkeepers driven into the workhouse. Large sections of the middle class are being gradually proletarianized; but the important point is that they do not, at any rate in the first generation, adopt the proletarian outlook [emphasis added]. Here am I, for instance, with a bourgeois upbringing and a working-class income. Which class do I belong to? Economically, I belong to the working class, but it is almost impossible for me to think of myself as anything but a member of the bourgeoisie. And supposing I had to take sides, whom should I side with: the upper class which is trying to squeeze me out of existence, or the working class whose manners are not my manners? [emphasis added] It is probable that I personally would side with the working class. But what about the tens or hundreds of thousands of others who are in approximately the same position? And what about that far larger class, running into millions this time – the office-workers and the black-coated employees of all kinds – whose traditions are less definitely middle class but who certainly would not thank you if you called them proletarians? All of these people have the same interests and the same enemies as the working class. All are being robbed and bullied by the same system. Yet how many of them realize it? When the pinch came nearly all of them would side with their oppressors and against those who ought to be their allies. It is quite easy to imagine a middle class crushed down to the worst depths of poverty and still remaining bitterly anti-working class in sentiment; this being, of course, a ready made Fascist Party [emphasis added].”

        Although written about England, which has a more pronounced and admitted class social structure, Orwell’s analysis holds up remarkably well when trying to explain why so many down-and-out Americans without a pot to piss in tend to vote against their own economic self interest and for those candidates of both American conservative political factions who represent not them but the entrenched corporate interests who regard the middle and working classes as disposable prey. “Family Values,” anyone?

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