Checking today’s headlines at CNN was a grim affair. First, gun violence:
Ten mass shootings happened across the nation this weekend, leaving at least seven people dead and more than 40 injured. It was the latest in a streak of violent weekends in America. The weekend before this, there were also 10 mass shootings that left 12 people dead across seven states. (CNN defines a mass shooting as four or more people shot, not including the shooter.) This weekend’s violence included shootings at several parties and celebrations, including in California, Indiana and Colorado. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 293 mass shootings in 2021 so far.
After death by gun, we have death by vehicles on America’s roads:
38,680: That’s how many people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2020, according to estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s the largest projected number of deaths since 2007, despite a 13.2% decrease in miles traveled from the prior year.
And of course the Covid-19 death toll has surpassed 600,000 in the United States (one study suggests the true Covid death toll is over 900,000), with the Trump administration having rejected any responsibility for its botched response to the pandemic. Most Trump supporters seem content with the notion that, well, at least Trump tried to do, well, something, like blaming the Chinese for “Kung Flu.” Sadly, Trump’s “gifts” of bluster and boasting and bragging and bombast just had no effect on a deadly virus.
At this site, I often marvel at how Americans have so little knowledge of or interest in America’s wars overseas and the deaths and suffering they produce. But the hard truth is that we also tend to ignore mass death here in the USA, whether from guns or motor vehicles or lack of affordable health care. Indeed, I’ve seen estimates to suggest that perhaps half of America’s deaths from Covid could have been prevented if our country had a national health care system. But we’d rather die from kleptocratic capitalism (in the name of freedom) than live with democratic socialism.
I don’t think America has a death wish — but we sure could use a lot more emphasis on life and living. Readers, what say you?
“The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (1969) starring Maggie Smith, who won the academy award for best actress that year, challenges, at least for a moment, pedagogical orthodoxy. In this fictitious story Jean Brodie is a teacher in a private secondary school for girls in 1932 Edinburgh. From the beginning it is obvious she is the most popular as well as the most controversial teacher in the school. The rigorously traditional head mistress regards Miss Brodie as a maverick who has consistently demonstrated that her methods over the years of her tenure are starkly incompatible with the goals and values of the school. Jean nurtures a romantic attraction to social, political, and military upheavals. In her classes she avoids talking about the political and moral ramifications of historical events, seeing them as obstacles to her view of history as drama. Showing her students projected slides of classical architectural structures and paintings to engage their capacity for aesthetic appreciation is also a major feature of Miss Brodie’s classes. Engaging her students’ emotions is more important to Jean than detailed historical facts.
In first day of class for the new semester Miss Brodie describes an imaginary scene of a former lover dying on the battlefield in World War I. She seems to delight in exposing her girls (her students are “my girls”) to the emotional realities of war by providing them with the opportunity to romanticize death. Listening to the description of the former lover’s death in battle one of her students bursts into tears. At that moment, the head mistress enters the classroom to see how the first day is going. She is perplexed by the student crying, declaring: “You shouldn’t cry during a history lesson.”
“Truth and beauty” is what Jean Brodie claims she is teaching her students. To challenge her students to appreciate the romantic qualities of even ghastly historical events seems to be a goal. But what she means by “truth” is not necessarily empirical facts. Beauty is truth, Miss Brodie adamantly believes. Even war is an aspect of “beauty” because people die heroically. It doesn’t matter what the reason or cause is as long as passionate feelings can be engaged in the presentation of the lesson.
At one point in the film Jean is called to the head mistress’s office to explain her teaching methods. The head mistress suspects—and rightly so—that Jean is not giving her students the standard information regarding the subject matter. Miss Brodie argues that the meaning of education comes from the Latin word “e-ducare” which means to lead out of. Her job, she believes, is to elicit her students’ inherent love of learning. She seeks to stimulate her students’ inherent capacity to see macro and micro events, especially of war, as an art form. A scene on the battlefield in Spain is to be admired as one appreciates a Giotto painting.
Throughout the movie Jean keeps telling her students they are the “crème de la crème.” When she asks Mary, a new student at the beginning of the semester what her interests are the student says she doesn’t have any. Miss Brodie promptly tells her she will give her interests. Later in the school year that same student goes off to fight for Franco in the Spanish Civil War after Jean had told the class that one is not fully living until one is engaged in major social and political events, events which elicit passionate responses. The student drops out of school and join’s Franco’s fascist army. She gets killed before the school year is over. (Jean has obviously omitted discussing with her students the moral purpose of the war in the first place.)
So, what can educators learn from the character of Miss Jean Brodie? Jean’s teaching style—you have to see the movie to really appreciate it–surely leaves something to be desired. But Miss Brodie’s love of teaching itself and her desire to engage her students’ emotions in the learning process is to be taken seriously. After all, her students love and respect her highly, as almost every scene in the film demonstrates. But Jean’s failure to acknowledge important facts in favor of the aesthetic and the romantic aspects of political events—Mussolini is a beautiful leader, she proclaims–is what brings her down. She is ultimately dismissed from her teaching post.
The film raises an important question in liberal arts education, both on secondary and post-secondary levels. Do teachers and professors need to engage students’ capacity to become emotional, even passionate, about the subject matter? Should the role of the educator be to provide students with interests, as Jean insists her purpose is, at the expense of factual information? Put simply, does the story of Miss Jean Brodie have something significant to offer educators despite Jean’s playing fast and loose with empirical reality?
For myself—I’ve been a professor of sociology for decades–the importance of emotive anecdotal examples throughout the teaching process when the subject matter pertains particularly to human behavior and socio-historical events can’t be overstated. The teacher of social sciences and history as artist and poet is a very plausible mixture. At any rate I felt very much inspired by the Jean Brodie character. She genuinely wanted to reach her students to inspire them to live passionately.
Yet, as the movie suggests, passions unguided by a sound moral compass may prove deadly.
Richard Sahn is a sociology professor who challenged and inspired his students to think differently in and out of the classroom for more than four decades.
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 General 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?
To read the rest of my article for TomDispatch.com, please click here. Thanks!
Note: In writing my book on Paul von Hindenburg, I was greatly helped by Dennis Showalter, a wonderful historian and a better friend. Dennis was remarkably generous to me and to so many other students of history. Dennis died at the end of 2019, and I miss his keen mind, his exceptional scholarship, but most of all his warmth and sense of humor. We joked that our work on Hindenburg represented a rare “bipartisan” collaboration between a Yankees fan (that’s him) and a Red Sox fan (that’s me). Thanks for everything, Dennis.
But what was most interesting to me was what the article left out. Firstly, my dad never finished high school, but he got an education in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and the Army during World War II, then did factory work (again) until he got on the civil service as a firefighter. And that’s what was essential: a decent-paying job backed up by a strong union. My dad’s pay and benefits continued to increase throughout his career because of the firefighters’ union and its bargaining power. Yet nowhere in the article above are unions mentioned. In fact, in America today unions are often demonized as being against the interests of workers. Instead, we’re urged to trust in the uber-rich like Jeff Bezos to provide high-paying jobs with great benefits. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen.
My dad’s “education” included two years in the CCC, including time in Oregon fighting major forest fires. He never formally graduated from high school but loved philosophy and opera
Secondly, the article fails to mention anything about a living wage for these workers and their careers. There’s no mention of Joe Biden’s broken promise to pass a $15 federal minimum hourly wage (which really nowadays should be $20 an hour). Without unions and without a living wage, how are all these high school graduates with vocations going to support themselves? Not all vocations pay that well, and some pay no more than $10 an hour and come without health care. Small wonder that so many Americans turn to college for some “insurance.”
Yet even in college they often don’t find the insurance they’re looking for. America’s collegiate system is often about funneling the maximum number of young adults to college while extracting as much money from them as they and their parents are able (or unable) to pay. What’s “higher” about higher education are often the bills and little else.
Look, I taught for nine years at a vocational college and I’m all for it. At a community college you can gain certificates and associate degrees without assuming a heavy load of student debt. I agree we need more decent-paying vocational programs. For example, I had a student who trained as a heavy equipment operator. He didn’t do that well in my class, but he didn’t much care. As he told me, he was graduating to a job, probably in the fracking fields of Pennsylvania, where he’d soon be earning $75K-$85K a year, and this was circa 2010. Not bad pay at all for his chosen profession.
I’m all for vocational options that don’t require four-year (or longer) college degrees and lots of debt. But let’s have strong unions and fair pay as well, else many of these vocational graduates will be screwed yet again by a system that deflates wages as much as possible so as to funnel more money to the richest.
Another subject the author fails to develop is how college has become the new high school for too many students. I saw my share of students where I taught who needed remedial math and English because they didn’t learn the same in high school. Partly this is because we underfund our schools, underpay our teachers, and often focus way too much on high school sports (football in Texas, anyone?).
I also wonder at times whether our system is designed to produce dead ends for students. It’s one way you get more than a few eighteen-year-olds to enlist in the military. They’re often seeking educational benefits, vocational training, and sometimes those enlistment bonuses as well. Often those bonuses are tied directly to enlisting in the most dangerous military occupational specialties, like being a combat infantryman. The empire always needs fresh bodies.
In sum, I think it’s a great idea to open more opportunities to high school graduates in America. But while we do that, let’s do three other things: 1) Strengthen workers’ unions in America; 2) Raise the federal minimum wage to at least $15 an hour; 3) Improve high school education across the board through more educational funding. higher pay for teachers, and an ethos in America that values education as essential to active and informed participation in civic life.
In the early 1990s, my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting friends in a newly unified Berlin, where we were introduced to the work of Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945). Kollwitz lost a beloved son, Peter, in World War I and turned against war in her art. We visited the museum dedicated to her work, which reflected the causes that moved her. She was for people, for workers, for equity, for equality, for mothers and fathers and their children, and she was very much against war.
Here’s one of her powerful images with the theme of No More War:
“Never again war” was a common sentiment across the world in 1924, in the aftermath of the death and devastation of World War I. Yet that sentiment didn’t last, and in the chaos of the Great Depression the Nazis soon gained power and then ruthlessly acted to consolidate it. So much for “never again war.”
The Neue Wache: here Kollwitz has a sculpture of mother and her dead son, based on the Christian imagery of Mary cradling Jesus after his death by crucifixion. Why do we crucify so many of our young via endless war?
Kollwitz was haunted by the death of her son, Peter, in World War I. The burden of pain she carried is captured in this moving and powerful sculpture. There is no glory here. Only grief and suffering and love of the most painful kind.
It’s well worth watching this brief and moving ceremony:
For far too many, war is something like a game, as shown in this telling image of Napoleon playing chess against the Russian Winter (Andreas Paul Weber). So many of us are only pawns in the “game” of war. Where is the glory here, emperor?
Kollwitz knew the pain and loss of war, and she knew how to share that pain and loss with the world. If you should find yourself in Berlin, I urge you to visit her museum and also to visit the Neue Wache memorial to the victims of war and dictatorship.
Back in March, Tom Engelhardt had a stimulating article at TomDispatch.com on the wounding of planet Earth. He also made mention of the Covid-19 pandemic. And as I read his piece, I thought of Mother Earth suffering from a human-made pandemic. A virus of humans. A human-made flu of fevers (heat waves and fires), chills (freezes in the South), coughs (turbulent weather), thirst (droughts out West), and pain (nearly everywhere).
But, sadly, there’s no vaccine for Mother Earth. All we humans can do is relieve the symptoms by changing our behavior. Mother Earth is already infected with us; now we need to leave her alone, let her rest, allow her to recover. But we don’t. We keep stressing her with our actions (and inaction on climate change) and making her symptoms worse.
The only problem: When Mother Earth dies, we all die.
We’re on the fast track to dystopia, which puts me to mind of a recent Splinterlands trilogy written by John Feffer. His latest and last volume is called Songlands, which he writes about here at TomDispatch.com. For a dystopic trilogy, I found it strangely uplifting, for Feffer still sees hope in humans who are willing to sacrifice to save our planet. I urge you to check it out.
It’s amazing to me that ultra-rich billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are saluted for their “investment” in space exploration, as if we humans are going to save ourselves by building stations on the moon or Mars. If Bezos and Musk truly wanted to give back to humanity, they’d be focusing on reducing consumption here on Earth while fighting for preservation and conservation. But their space trips are really ego trips, and their fuel has always been money.
Here’s hoping humanity rejects the “final frontier” nonsense of Bezos and Musk and turns its attention to what really matters: the health and welfare of this wonderful yet fragile world of ours.
For if we refuse to honor Mother Earth, it may be the last sin we humans commit.
Among my many weak spots is economics and business. I took exactly one course in college on macroeconomics. I took dozens of courses in math and engineering like calculus, statics, dynamics, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, biomechanics, you name it. Then I switched academic specialties and became a historian of science, technology, and religion. Again I took dozens of courses in various branches of history, but again my one economics course remains my brief exposure to that world. And I took it as a freshman forty years ago!
Economics has been on my mind lately because so much of what passes for national military (a redundant phrase) strategy in the U.S. is really about making money. Profit. Capitalism, pure and simple. Moving products, expanding markets, diversifying portfolios, and so on. There’s no business like war business. It’s a capitalist’s dream.
In this rich vein of greed-war, I urge you to read Christian Sorensen’s 5-part series on the military-industrial-congressional complex at Consortium News. (Here’s a link to part 5, which also includes links to the previous four parts.) I really like the way he begins Part 5:
Without looking at military adventurism through the lens of the corporation, analysts are bound to produce error-filled studies. For example, one analyst contended in an interview on The Real News Network, “Military force is almost never going to achieve your political aims. The Americans learned this in Vietnam. They’re learning it in Afghanistan. They’re learning it in Syria… So [President Barack] Obama supporting the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen is a sign really of incoherence on the part of the United States.”
Far from incoherence, the behavior actually is quite rational. A variety of conflicts, disparate and some seemingly futile, is precisely the aim. Conflict itself — producing untold mountains of profit for war corporations and Wall Street — is the goal.
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. You can’t look at U.S. military-national “strategy” today through a purely strategic lens or one informed solely by military history (as I’m tempted to do). Clausewitz, Jomini, and other classical military theorists won’t help you much. You need to look to Wall Street, to economics, to how capitalism works. You have to look to business cycles, profit, markets, portfolios, diversification, and similar concepts. You have to recognize war is a special kind of business, one that America is very good at because we specialize in it. War and weaponry may well be our leading exports.
Again, I’m tempted as a former engineer and as a professional historian who’s studied strategy (at Oxford no less) to try to make sense of U.S. national-military strategy in logical terms informed by history, Wrong approach! The right approach is to follow the money. Think not of “war as a continuation of politics” but of war as a continuation of capitalism, a special kind of disaster or death capitalism. Remember too to think in terms of portfolios and diversification of the same, after which U.S. policies make all the sense in the world. More conflict means more weapons sales means more money. The same is true of arms races in the false cause of deterrence.
An early example from my life. When I was a young lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, circa 1985, I wrote a paper on the B-1 bomber and the strategy of “manned penetrating bombers.” In plain speak (plane speak?), the Air Force was spending loads of money on a high-tech swing-wing plane loaded with avionics which would in theory enable it to penetrate Soviet airspace and bomb targets directly. This made little sense to me, nor did it make sense to President Jimmy Carter, who had cancelled the plane as unneeded. After all, B-52s could carry highly accurate cruise missiles and launch them from outside of Soviet airspace, and for much less money.
But the B-1, like any major weapon system, had powerful friends in Congress, since Rockwell International had spread production of the plane and its components to as many Congressional districts as possible. When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, he quickly reversed Carter’s decision. It wasn’t about strategy. It was about business and profit justified in the name of sending a tough message to the “Evil Empire.” Meanwhile, the Soviet Union collapsed a few years later and the U.S. was stuck with 100 B-1 bombers it didn’t need. Time has proven it to be an expensive plane to maintain, and one that’s never been used (fortunately) on the mission for which it was designed.
The U.S. has a lot of weapons like the B-1 bomber: expensive, unreliable, redundant strategically, and ultimately unneeded. It doesn’t make much sense, until you realize it’s all about making money, moving product, inflating threats, and keeping the cycle going, again and again, wars and weapons without end, Amen.
America doesn’t have a foreign policy, it has a business plan, and it’s business as usual in the Biden administration. Joe Biden promised his donors that nothing would fundamentally change in his administration. Kamala Harris said her agenda wasn’t about substantive change. So what we’re getting under the Biden/Harris team is eminently predictable:
More blank checks for Israel, and no recognition of any rights for Palestinians.
A revival of the old Cold War, with China as the leading “threat” but with Russia not forgotten.
Politics subordinated to the military, rather than the military in service of political aims. In brief, military dominance is America’s foreign policy.
Related to (1-3) is dominance of the world’s trade in weapons. The State Department has become a tiny branch of the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex. It’s all about closing arms deals, moving hardware, selling weaponry, making a buck.
Naturally, one of Biden’s first acts as president was to bomb a foreign country, in this case Syria. So presidential!
In Joe Biden, America has a fading and flailing man to lead a fading and flailing empire. In Kamala Harris, America has an example of old wine in new packaging. She’s a woman, she’s Black, she’s South Asian — and she thinks like Hillary Clinton and Henry Kissinger.
Remember when Joe Biden said he’d be all about diplomacy? That the power of America’s example would rule over the example of our power? Nice words, but that’s all they’ve been so far. Words.
Two examples where Biden has appeared to offer meaningful change are with Afghanistan and Yemen. With Afghanistan, Biden has promised a complete military withdrawal by 9/11/2021. But does this apply only to combat troops while excluding mercenaries, the CIA, special forces “trainers,” and the like? It’s not yet clear. Plus anything can happen between now and 9/11 for Biden to switch gears and keep some combat troops in place.
With Yemen, Biden made a point about excluding offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia while still allowing defensive ones. Almost any weapon can be labeled as defensive in nature, so it’s doubtful whether Saudi operations in Yemen will be impacted at all by Biden’s weasel-word policies.
The Biden/Harris foreign policy, such as it is, is retrograde. It’s a return to the Cold War, with an emphasis on new nuclear weapons and larger Pentagon budgets. It’s about global dominance while America at home burns. It’s foolish and stupid yet it will make a few people richer for a few more business cycles.
And thus it’s business as usual in Washington, which is exactly what Biden/Harris were hired for.
In my village, there’s a memorial to the men who served in “the war with Germany,” 1917-18, which we now call World War I. Here’s a photo of it that I took a few days ago:
It includes the names of some of the oldest and most prominent families of my community, which is not surprising. World War I did witness a draft in America, but there was also a sense of noblesse oblige among the more affluent, a sense that one was required to serve if one was healthy.
I’ve often wondered what would have happened if Woodrow Wilson, reelected as president in 1916, actually had acted to keep America out of the war, as he promised he would. The “Yanks and the tanks” helped to tip the scales against Imperial Germany on the Western Front in the spring of 1918. Without the presence of U.S. doughboys (troops), and more importantly the promise of more to come, it’s possible the French and British may have been defeated by the great German offensive, or at the very least may have decided to sue for peace. But of course the German offensive ran its course and stalled, and the Allied counteroffensive (supported by a million or so fresh Yanks) wore down the Germans until they sued for peace, with the war finally ending on November 11, 1918.
It’s tempting to think that a German victory or quasi-victory in 1918 or 1919 would have prevented the rise of someone like Adolf Hitler. Hitler himself was devastated by Germany’s loss in 1918, as so many Germans were, and that loss combined with the seductive lie that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” by traitorous elements on the homefront created the climate in which a rabble-rouser like Hitler could rise and thrive. And surely the Second Reich under Kaiser Wilhelm and officers like Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff was preferable to the Third Reich under Hitler and his henchmen?
I’m not so sure. Germany’s Second Reich achieved something in 1917 the Third Reich couldn’t in 1941: the defeat of Russia. (The injection of Lenin into Russia as a poison pill of sorts contributed to the Russian Revolution and the death of the Tsar.) But that same Second Reich imposed the harshest of peaces on a destabilized Russia. Known as the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Germans took huge swaths of territory from Russia, most of its industrial resources, and much of its agricultural base as well. Basically, men like Ludendorff saw the Slavic peoples as inferior and pictured them as Germany’s slaves. Russia’s western lands were to become living space for the superior Germanic peoples. In short, Lebensraum (living space) wasn’t just Hitler’s idea: it was an ambition shared by many German militarists. Let’s recall as well the name of the general who marched beside Hitler in the infamous Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. That general: Ludendorff.
A German victory in 1918 or 1919 would have produced a hell of sorts for the Slavic peoples to the east. Perhaps not a Hitlerian Holocaust (virulent and murderous anti-Semitism was peculiar to Hitler and the Third Reich), but nevertheless an empire characterized by an expansionist militarism that saw dispossession and slavery as perfectly legitimate options for the future. In sum, the Germans of early 1918 were ruthless in victory, so when Germany ultimately lost later that year, the Allies reciprocated with ruthlessness of their own in 1919.
German militarism had to be stopped, or so the men with names on the monument in my village appear to have decided. The shame of it all is how World War I led, not to eternal peace as Wilson promised, but to World War II and to so many wars and conflicts after that.
Memorial Day reminds us of the price troops pay for seemingly endless wars, and that even when wars appear to be for good, even noble, causes, how often those causes are betrayed whether during or after those wars.
Remember in the 1930s how Americans referred to arms dealers, especially those who profited from war, as “merchants of death”? Yes, that was indeed a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. Nowadays, it’s weapons ‘r’ us, and America’s leading sounds of freedom are blam-blam-blam and ka-ching ka-ching ka-ching. Cash registers for weapons makers are truly ka-chinging wildly as America continues to dominate the global trade in war weapons, notes William Hartung at TomDispatch.com. Hartung’s title, “Selling Death,” puts it succinctly. Here’s an excerpt:
When it comes to trade in the tools of death and destruction, no one tops the United States of America.
In April of this year, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) published its annual analysis of trends in global arms sales and the winner — as always — was the U.S. of A. Between 2016 and 2020, this country accounted for 37% of total international weapons deliveries, nearly twice the level of its closest rival, Russia, and more than six times that of Washington’s threat du jour, China.
Sadly, this was no surprise to arms-trade analysts. The U.S. has held that top spot for 28 of the past 30 years, posting massive sales numbers regardless of which party held power in the White House or Congress. This is, of course, the definition of good news for weapons contractors like Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin, even if it’s bad news for so many of the rest of us, especially those who suffer from the use of those arms by militaries in places like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, the Philippines, and the United Arab Emirates. The recent bombing and leveling of Gaza by the U.S.-financed and supplied Israeli military is just the latest example of the devastating toll exacted by American weapons transfers in these years.
When it comes to weapons sales, America truly is Number One! Which, in that faraway galaxy ,was once nothing to celebrate. In fact, it was something to deplore and denounce.
Why is this? Christian Sorensen at Consortium News has some answers. In a five-part series, he’s tackling the military-industrial-congressional complex and detailing its reach and power across American society. In “A People’s Guide to the War Industry,” Sorensen has this to say about America’s “solutions”-based war industry:
War corporations market their goods and services as “solutions.” A Raytheon executive, John Harris, explained to the Defense & Aerospace Report in 2018 that engaging “with senior members of government” is just “providing solutions to our customers,” providing “integrated solutions to meet our customers’ needs,” and even “figuring out how we can solve our customers’ problems using a dispassionate system approach.”
The solutions trick works well when selling to the U.S. military. For example, Booz Allen Hamilton offers digital solutions, CACI offers information solutions, and Leidos offers innovative solutions. Through its inherently harmful, anti-democratic activities, the war industry helps create the miserable conditions for which it then offers “solutions,” of course without ever taking responsibility for the dismal state of affairs (i.e. nonstop war) that it helped create.
“Providing solutions” sounds prettier and more generous than “making money off death and destruction.” MIC officials also regularly couch Washington’s imperialism, weapon sales, and war-first foreign policy as giving the troops the “tools they need.” A similar phrase (“We’ve listened to the warfighter”) is utilized when selling goods and services, particularly upgrades and technological insertions.
I’d add that, not only do war corporations market “solutions” to the warfighter, but the Pentagon sells these to the American people as “investments” in peace.
And who can be against “solutions” and “investments”?
I had the pleasure to be at a Warren Zevon concert in the early 1980s when he sang one of his signature songs, “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” How right he was! Between a rock and a hard place, America knows how to send lawyers, guns, and money.
I urge you to read Hartung and Sorensen and then reflect on the words of MLK about a nation that spends so much on weaponry and exports so much violence as one that is as a result approaching spiritual death.