Americans may already be lying themselves out of what little remains of their democracy.
The big lie uniting and motivating today’s Republicans is, of course, that Donald Trump, not Joe Biden, won the 2020 presidential election. Other big lies in our recent past include the notion that climate change is nothing but a Chinese hoax, that Russia was responsible for Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat in 2016, and that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was necessary because that country’s leader, Saddam Hussein, had something to do with the 9/11 attacks (he didn’t!) and possessed weapons of mass destruction that could be used against the United States, a “slam dunk” truth, according to then–CIA Director George Tenet (it wasn’t!).
Those and other lies, large and small, along with systemic corruption in Washington are precisely why so many Americans have been driven to despair. Small wonder that, in 2016, those “deplorables” reached out in desperation to a figure who wasn’t a product of Washington’s mendacious Beltway culture. Desperate times engender desperate acts, including anointing a failed casino owner and consummate con man as America’s MAGA-cap-wearing savior. As the 45th president, Donald Trump set a record for lies that will likely remain unmatchable in its “greatness”—or so we must hope anyway.
Sadly, Americans have become remarkably tolerant of comfortable lies, generally preferring them to uncomfortable truths. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the military realm that I’ve inhabited most of my life. The first casualty of war, so it’s said, is truth, and since this country has remained perennially at war, we continue to eternally torture the truth as well.
When it comes to war, here are just a few of our all-American falsehoods: that this country is slow to anger because we prefer peace, even if wars are often necessary, which is also why peace-loving America must have the world’s “finest” and by far the most expensive military on the planet; that just such a military is also a unique force for freedom on Planet Earth; that it fights selflessly “to liberate the oppressed” (a Special Forces motto) but never to advance imperial or otherwise selfish ambitions.
For a superpower that loves to flex its military muscles, such lies are essentially par for the course. Think of them, in fact, as government-issue (GI) lies. As a historian looking to the future, what worries me more are two truly insidious lies that, in the early 1930s, led to the collapse of a fledgling democracy in Weimar Germany, lies that in their own way helped to facilitate the Holocaust and that, under the right (that is, wrong) circumstances, could become ours as well. What were those two lies?
Germany’s Tragic Lies After World War I
During World War I, the German military attempted to defeat the combined forces of Britain, France, Russia, and later the United States, among other powers, while simultaneously being “shackled to a corpse,” as one German general described his country’s main ally, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the middle of 1916, the German Second Reich, led by Kaiser Wilhelm II had, in essence, become a military dictatorship devoted to total victory at any cost.
Two years later, that same military had been driven to exhaustion by its commanders. When it was on the verge of collapse, its generals washed their hands of responsibility and allowed the politicians to sue for peace. But even before the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918, certain reactionary elements within the country were already rehearsing two big and related lies that would facilitate the rise of a demagogue and the onset of an even more disastrous world war.
The first big lie was that the German military, then considered the world’s finest (sound familiar?), emerged from World War I undefeated in the field, its troops a band of heroes covered in glory. That lie was tenable because Germany itself had not been invaded in World War I; the worst fighting took place in France, Belgium, and Russia. It was also tenable because its military leaders had lied to the people about the progress being made toward “victory.” (This should again sound familiar to contemporary American ears.) So, when those senior leaders finally threw in the towel in late 1918, it came as a shock to most Germans, who’d been fed a steady diet of “progress,” while news of serious setbacks on the Western Front was suppressed.
The second big lie followed from the first. For if one accepted the “undefeated in the field” myth, as so many Germans did, then who was responsible for the defeat of the world’s finest military? Not Germany’s generals, of course. Indeed, in 1919, led by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, those same generals would maliciously claim that disloyal elements on the home front—an enemy within—had conspired to betray the country’s heroic troops. Thus was born the “stab-in-the-back” myth that placed the blame on traitors from within, while ever so conveniently displacing it from the kaiser and his generals.
Who, then, were Germany’s backstabbers? The usual suspects were rounded up: mainly socialists, Marxists, anti-militarists, pacifists, and war profiteers of a certain sort (but not weapons makers like the Krupp Family). Soon enough, Germany’s Jews would be fingered as well by gutter-inhabitants like Adolf Hitler, since they had allegedly shirked their duty to serve in the ranks. This was yet another easy-to-disprove lie, but all too many Germans, desperate for scapegoats and undoubtedly bigoted as well, proved eager to believe such lies.
Those two big and insidious falsehoods led to an almost total lack of accountability in Weimar Germany for militarists like Hindenburg and Gen. Erich Ludendorff who were significantly responsible for the country’s defeat. Such lies fed the anger and fattened the grievances of the German people, creating fertile ground for yet more grievous lies. In a climate of fear driven by the massive economic dislocation brought on by the Great Depression of 1929, a previously fringe figure found his voice and his audience. Those two big lies served to empower Hitler and, not surprisingly, he began promoting both a military revival and calls for revenge against the backstabbing “November criminals” who had allegedly betrayed Germany. Hitler’s lies were readily embraced in part because they fell on well-prepared ears.
Of course, a mature democracy like America could never produce a leader remotely like a Hitler or a militaristic empire bent on world domination. Right?
America may indeed never produce its own Hitler, a demagogue who might indeed be described as a very unstable genius, and by “genius” I mean his uncanny ability to tap into and exploit the darker passions of his people and his age. Yet the United States in 2021 certainly does have power-hungry, less-than-stable “geniuses” of its own—as all countries do in all times. Men without principles or limits, willing to repeat big lie after big lie until they gain absolute power. Someone like former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or Senator Tom Cotton perhaps? Or perhaps an updated version of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s fleeting national security adviser, who only recently expressed support for a military coup to overthrow the government. Or perhaps, in 2024, Trump himself.
America’s Own Big Lies
Of course, Germany in the aftermath of World War I is hardly a perfect analog for the United States in the aftermath of two decades of its disastrous but distant War on Terror. And history is, at best, suggestive rather than duplicative. Yet we study it in part because the past provides insight into potential futures. Personalities and events change, but human nature remains much the same, which is why military officers still read the work of Athenian general and historian Thucydides with profit, despite the fact that his wars ended more than two millennia ago.
So let’s return to the two big lies that, in retrospect, were fatal to Weimar Germany’s democracy. How might they apply to the United States today? Since 9/11, our military has prosecuted two big wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as numerous smaller conflicts in places like Libya, Syria, and Somalia. That same military has lost both of those big wars, while creating or exacerbating ongoing humanitarian crises and disasters in the “smaller” ones across the Greater Middle East and Africa.
Yet, in the American “homeland” (as it came to be known after the 9/11 attacks), it’s remarkable how seldom anyone notes how badly that same military has bungled all those wars. Indeed, it’s generally celebrated in most of the country and certainly in Washington as the finest military force in the world, perhaps even in world history. Its budget continues to rise as if in response to victories everywhere and therefore deserving of the lion’s share of taxpayer dollars. Its retired generals and admirals are celebrated and rewarded with healthy pensions and even healthier pay and benefits if they so choose (and many do) to speed through the revolving door that links them to highly profitable war corporations like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon.
In essence, Americans have been sold on the idea that “their” military has been undefeated in the field, or, if “defeated” in the sense of suffering setbacks, not responsible for them. But if America’s troops are the best of us and their losing commanders generally good enough to be eternally rewarded, who is to blame for America’s loss in Iraq? In Afghanistan? Not them, obviously, not if you believe polling results which show that Americans have more “confidence” in the military than most other US institutions (though those figures, still high, have been dropping recently).
If responsibility for defeat is not to be assigned either to the troops or their military commanders, and if we Americans most certainly can’t imagine that an enemy like the Taliban is capable of defeating our mighty forces, who is to blame? An enemy within! Someone in the homeland who’s stabbing America’s noble heroes in the back. But, if so, who exactly?
Senior leaders in the US military are already complaining that Joe Biden’s troop withdrawal from Afghanistan may yet sow the seeds of defeat in that country (as if nearly 20 years of waging a disastrous war there had somehow set the stage for success). Republicans, as is their custom, have their knives out, too. They seem to be preparing to stab Democrats for being weak on defense and appeasers of “dictators” like the leaders of Iran and China.
And if you’re thinking about a future “enemy within” narrative, don’t forget the recent letter signed by 124 of our retired generals and admirals who seek to blame the decline of democracy in this country not on Trump and his lackeys, but on the spread of progressivism, socialism, even Marxism. That they might bear the slightest responsibility for the situation America finds itself in today would never occur to that company-sized gaggle of losers posing as self-appointed prophets.
But the truth is far harsher than those flag-rank opportunists are prepared to admit. Incessant war, insidious militarism, and our failure to face it all should be considered the real enemies within. And those “enemies” are helping to kill democracy in America, as James Madison, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Martin Luther King Jr., among others, warned us about decades, even centuries, ago.
Here’s the simple truth of it: America’s wars since 9/11 were never this country’s to win. They were pointless conflicts of opportunity, profiting the Pentagon (and its ever-rising budget). They were tainted by a need for vengeance and badly mismanaged by some of the same flag-rank officers who signed that letter. Honest self-reflection would require a serious course correction within that military and most certainly a wholesale rejection of militarism and military adventurism. And this is undoubtedly why so many in the military-industrial-congressional complex prefer the comfort of big lies.
We’ve seen versions of this before. Ronald Reagan reinterpreted a criminal war in Southeast Asia as “a noble cause.” George H.W. Bush referred to a rational and reasoned reluctance to fight needless overseas wars as “the Vietnam syndrome,” claiming the United States had finally “kicked it” with its ephemeral victory over Saddam Hussein in the Desert Storm campaign of 1991. The Rambo myth in popular culture reinforced the notion that American warriors had won the war in Vietnam, only to be stabbed in the back by duplicitous politicians and anti-war protesters who also spit on the returning troops. (They didn’t.) Together such myths worked to shelter the US military from radical reforms, ensuring an ongoing business-as-usual attitude at the Pentagon until, after 9/11, its true “mission (un)accomplished” years arrived.
Tough Truths Are the Antidote to Big Lies
Americans need a day of reckoning that shows no sign of coming. After all, we’re talking about a Congress that can’t even agree to form a joint commission to investigate the January 6 storming of the Capitol. Still, a guy can dream, can’t he? My own dream would involve the formation of a truth commission to hold senior leaders, military and civilian, accountable not only for their lies about America’s many wars but for the decisions to launch them and the pathetic performances that followed, as they did their unprincipled best to absolve themselves of responsibility.
Allow me to dream as well about what such an exercise in truth-telling and true accountability would involve:
- Bipartisan congressional investigations into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including sworn testimony by presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump, as well as vice presidents Cheney, Biden, and Pence, and those failed former commanding generals of ours.
- Bipartisan congressional investigations into the military’s endless lies about progress in its wars, coupled with war crimes inquiries as needed.
- Major reductions in military spending by Congress to curb present and future military adventurism.
- An end to military adulation, a rejection of militarism, and a recommitment to democracy and truth-telling.
- No future wars overseas without a congressional declaration of the same, followed by mandatory conscription that would begin with the sons and daughters of members of Congress.
Through big lies and its allegiance to them, the United States today may be following a path already violently trod by Weimar Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s. Celebrating the military despite its defeats is a recipe for perpetual war and perpetual dishonesty. Equating democratic forces within America with divisiveness and sedition is a recipe not only for unrest but also a potentially harsher, far more violent future.
Here history teaches a disturbing lesson. What finally forced most Germans to face harsh truths, to reject militarism and megalomaniacal dreams of world empire, was catastrophic defeat in World War II. What, if anything, will force Americans to face similar harsh truths? Humanity can’t afford yet another world war, not one in which a president has the power to unleash a thousand holocausts via an eternally “modernized” nuclear arsenal.
Just remember: Big lies do have consequences.