Foolishness breeds foolishness. And that foolishness is well on display within retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s book, The Field of Fight. In this political submission to fear, Flynn attempts to scare Americans/Westerners (it says something that he can barely differentiate between the two, but he generally lumps groups together ) into believing that ISIS/Al Qaeda/Global Jihadism is an existential threat. I don’t want to debate the book—it’s crafted by old-hand neocon Michael Ledeen, and designed to improve his bona fides for a Trump vice-presidency—but examine the fool and the culture of fear itself.
Donald Trump traffics in fear. General Flynn does as well. They seek the darkest corners of our mind—the lizard brain—and spook it into reactions. Mexicans are scary: Build a wall! Women are scary: Call them names, deride them! Terrorists are scary: Kill their families! Slaughter the entire country! These are not the reactions of idealistic America, but a back-to-the-wall cur in the alley. Why should I believe this caricature of my nation put forward by fearmongers? Especially as the facts controvert their assumptions.
Trump is a fascist and opportunist, that is clear. But General Flynn’s failure is more worrisome. It has been noted—and he proudly crows in his book—that he is a leader in intelligence circles. Yet he describes an international coalition of nations bent on destroying the United States—ranging from North Korea (yeah, I’ll give that) to China (hmm…one of our largest trading partners), Russia and Syria (well, they are not our best buddies), to Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua (wait…what?! Perhaps some of the governments don’t like us, but seriously?) all headed by Iran (also, throw in the jihadists and other terrorist organizations, because why not?) I assume this cabal gets together in some secret base in a volcano to discuss world domination—the idea is just that ludicrous. General Flynn is assuming a level of sophistication and cooperation that simply doesn’t exist within geopolitics. It’s too rooted in outdated ideas of Us vs. Them and Cold War fears. It conflates and confounds. It makes me extremely worried on the state of intelligence if General Flynn was considered a serious thinker in intel circles.
Now, normally I wouldn’t care a whit about an upset retired general throwing another fearmongering book into the fray to cement his legacy as “serious,” but this officer is being considered as the running mate of an orange balloon with a toupee—and some folks are actually considering voting for the balloon! Therefore, this general’s statements have to be criticized.
General Flynn claims the anthrax scare in 2001, that killed 5 people, could have killed a quarter million if more effectively disbursed. Could haves are the realm of fantasy. Are we to be scared of terrorists getting their hands on anthrax and cropdusting cities? It could happen, right? There are multiple logical fallacies with this argument, and real-world countermeasures designed to stop just this very action. General Flynn is playing at emotions, reminding the public how scared they were immediately after 9/11, and how scared they should be.
General Flynn states, “We have to organize all our national power, from military and economic to intelligence and tough-minded diplomacy. It’s not cheap, and it’s probably going to last through several generations.” Ugh. This is infuriating. And frightening, but not in the sense that General Flynn wishes—he is seeking perpetual war, which could be argued, is a state in which we already are. But to focus the entire nation on defeating radical jihadism? Is that really the America in which you or I want to live? It’s a very totalitarian ideology, in which all resources must be directed to defeat the “other,” and we can all guess how that “other” will morph as we march to the tune of the balloon.
This speaks reams of the failure of military leadership. In the Cold War, generals and intel folks kept dreaming a Soviet Union that was always on the verge of winning, a Soviet Union as capable and dangerous as America, a Soviet Union that would crush America under a Communist thumb. Unfortunately, none of those pipe dreams were true. The Soviets did not match our war machine, they did not have the capabilities to rule over America—it was simply a fever dream meant to keep budgets burning. Same with ISIS/Al Qaeda/Taliban/Etc…how is this an existential threat? Jihadists can’t even defeat the pathetic Iraqi Army we set up, nor win out in the civil war in Syria. How will this group who cannot control and rule in a region where it at least comes from the population, knows the people, and may be one of the stronger militaries, be a believable threat? General Flynn believes it, noting the “radical Islamists [are taking steps] toward creating an Islamic state right here at home.” This is simply laughable—where exactly will this new caliphate be based? How will it be run? I can easily see the United States—a nation of 350 million diverse opinions, a nation with good ties to its neighbors both near and abroad, a nation with a robust and massive economy, a nation that celebrates diversity and independence, a nation that continues to advance the rule of law, a nation protected by two major oceans and the most destructive military the world has ever seen—that United States must be a furtive breeding ground for a new caliphate. Maybe General Flynn knows something we do not—he was a top dog in the intel community, and intel folks will always impress upon you how much you don’t know—and there is a boiling undercurrent of caliphatitus at home.
General Flynn is really just tiresome. He believes he was a success: “I changed our methods in Iraq in 2004 and in Afghanistan starting in 2010, and they worked.” Depends on your definition of ‘worked,’ do you mean you were able to tick boxes during your tour, turn some PowerPoints from red to green, get actionable intelligence that did nothing to solve the war? Maybe he did improve intel gathering—he does seem to understand that we are fighting these groups who are among the people, and to better understand their actions and support, we need to understand the people. But I don’t know of anyone who would say that Iraq and Afghanistan ‘worked.’ General Flynn continues, “I know them [the Radical Islamists? He conflates quite a few conflicting ideologies and governments…] and they scare me, a guy who doesn’t scare often or easily. They scare me even though we defeated them every time we fought seriously. We defeated al Qaeda and the Iranians in Iraq, and the Taliban and their allies in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, they kept fighting and we went away.” Two errors here. One, General Flynn seems not to understand what defeating your opponent actually is—simply ending your tour with better PowerPoints is not defeating the enemy. Again, I don’t know anyone who would say we have defeated the enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two, unless I am incorrect, we haven’t gone away. In fact we’ve extended the war from Iraq and Afghanistan to Somalia, Kenya, Chad, the Philippines, Syria, and beyond. And we are back in Iraq and…just…can’t…find…the…door…in Afghanistan. So I can’t buy his premise, can you?
One of General Flynn’s major themes seems to be how to label our supposed mortal enemy. He has no problem lumping together terrorists and mass populations as “evil people.” He doesn’t seem to notice this, but if he believes in the global cabal headed by Iran bent on the destruction of the United States, and that this cabal is also in league with al Qaeda and ISIS and a host of terrorist organizations, General Flynn is condemning major swaths of people as evil. Many of the governments of the nations in General Flynn’s coalition are repressive and cruel, dictatorial and undemocratic, but non-representative governments are not the reflection of the people. I can’t believe that every Iranian wishes death to America any more than I can believe every American wants to slaughter all the children of Syria, despite what our leaders say. Certainly, ISIS and al Qaeda are evil and unrepentant, but they have their own narratives as well, and since General Flynn quotes Sun Tzu, to defeat them is to know them—which General Flynn seems to do. Instead of thoughtful, directed policy comments or nuanced questions on the who, what, where, why, and how to counter extremism, General Flynn believes that if we could re-label these evil people as “Radical Islamists,” we would win. And then he trots out some strange argument about political correctness and how people aren’t allowed to use this term (which General Flynn uses, so I’ve never really followed the thread of this non-argument). He lumps, he simplifies, he makes a perfect black-and-white world fit for accepting audiences with nothing of the complication of the real world.
In short, General Flynn creates bogeymen, while absolving himself of his role in their creation. His offer is that of the fundamentalist, but I don’t see the light of fervor in his eyes. He is an old, angry white man. He is upset at being let go by the Obama administration. He sees conspiracy in the shadows. He has fought his whole life against a fluid and cruel enemy, and he is frustrated that the enemy refuses to submit to his demands. An inability to shape the world to one’s whims frustrates all, and for General Flynn, perhaps more so. He begins to see failures in the system, in politics, in anything that could explain why—with the full force of the United States—he couldn’t make the world better as he saw fit. And I understand that, but I cannot forgive him in his effort to scare Americans. To offer false security in the embrace of militarism. To conjure demons from an “other” that exists in his mind. He, like the orange balloon he courts, is not fit to lead this land. He is a fool.