Memorial Day Weekend

W.J. Astore

The best way to honor sacrifice is to seek an end to war and militarism

I was asked for a few words about Memorial Day. Here’s what I came up with:

On Memorial Day, we honor those who died in the service of our country. Let us do everything we can as a people and a nation to stop war and all its brutality.  A peaceful future without war and all its awfulness is the best way to honor our troops, even as we cherish the memory of the heroes who gave their all.

Too often, Memorial Day is reduced to sales events, barbecues, and the like. It is, of course, a solemn occasion to remember the sacrifice of American service members. To honor the dead. To cherish their memory.

Yet one can also focus too narrowly on the veneration of the dead, using euphemisms like “the fallen” and speaking of how troops willingly “gave” their lives for their country. The best antidote to this is a short video by Andy Rooney for “60 Minutes” (when that show still had some principles and bite). Rooney, who’d served in World War II, knew of what he spoke. His goal was to end war, to save the living, to make a better world.

If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to watch it and to reflect on his sad and wise words.

Quick Words on Ron DeSantis

W.J. Astore

A Greg Stillson-like Candidate?

Yesterday, Ron DeSantis announced his candidacy for President on Twitter; it didn’t go well due to “technical difficulties.” Something about his butchered announcement is telling. Yet what creeps me out about him isn’t his botched announcement with Elon Musk or even his record in Florida, which is bad enough, but rather his record in the U.S. military.

As a JAG (military lawyer), he seems to have facilitated torture at Gitmo (the prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba) and assassinations by Special Forces teams in Iraq.  He was also fond of posing like a combat officer in desert camo holding an assault rifle.  I doubt DeSantis was ever truly in harm’s way (same with me, by the way, but I never posed like a commando), but he loves to strike a pose. He even made a campaign commercial based on Tom Cruise’s “Maverick” in which DeSantis, of course, is the “Top Gun” of Florida.

Ron DeSantis, lawyer, ready to rock ‘n’ roll in Iraq

Meanwhile, speaking of image-making, according to the New York Times his wife Casey is cultivating a Jackie Kennedy-like image with her fashion choices (as a former TV news anchor, she knows the power of positive visuals). If image is everything, as those old camera commercials claimed, Ron DeSantis is burnishing his as a warrior-dad, which, I suppose, is better than the reality of a Harvard-trained power-hungry lawyer with no scruples. 

There is something “off” about DeSantis, something inauthentic and dishonest, even more so than the typical politician. Call it a gut feeling.

But, moving past my “gut,” there’s the stunt DeSantis pulled in shipping immigrants seeking asylum in Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. People are just pawns in his political power game. Again, not that unusual for an ambitious pol, but that doesn’t mean I want this charlatan to have his finger on the nuclear button.

I see him as a proto-Greg Stillson (from Stephen King’s “The Dead Zone”). A dangerous man. Strange as it may sound, Donald Trump strikes me as more authentic and less dangerous than DeSantis. Which, by the way, is no endorsement of Trump.

Mobsters of the Mind

W.J. Astore

Of “Legal” Drug Ads and Anti-Russia Messaging

Mobsters are known for breaking kneecaps to bend people to their will. Marketers break into heads with repetitive and manipulative advertising, images, and narratives. Mobsters of the mind, they are.

I thought of this after watching all those repetitive (and largely interchangeable) ads for “legal” prescription drugs. Rarely do they show the often serious conditions they allegedly treat. Instead it’s image after image of people enjoying life, whether at amusement parks, the beach, dancing, or what-have-you. It’s as if drug companies are selling happiness pills whose only side effect is experiencing the best day of your life. Meanwhile, as images spill into your head of eternal bliss, a narrator quietly intones about potential serious side effects, even possible death in the case of one drug I’ve seen advertised.

Excuse me while I pop a few pills and denounce Russia—or China

Drug ads are the worst. People wonder why Americans take so many illegal drugs and why we have so many drug addictions — well, just look at all the ads for legal drugs, and how they’re advertised as making people incandescently happy. It’s all about the messaging: the repetition of powerful feel-good imagery, with drugs as panaceas.

Speaking of repetition, something similar is true of political manipulation. To cite one example: Russia. Has there ever been a worse “drug” with more serious side effects than Russia? Russia keeps hacking our elections! Russia is led by war criminals! Russia is raping Ukraine! Over and over again, the mainstream media encourages us to hate Russia and Vladimir Putin. Is this truly all we need to know about Russia? As Sting sang, don’t the Russians love their children too? (Back in the 1980s, the media didn’t go easy on Sting for his alleged naïveté and pro-Russian sentiments.)

Whether it’s drug advertisers, the mainstream media, or the U.S. government for that matter, America is infested with various “ministries of truth” that are driven by a mobster-like mentality. They may not break your kneecaps, but they nevertheless find ways to break into your mind.

Now you’ll excuse me while I pop a few pills while denouncing Russia. And China too, perhaps?

The Maniacal Purposes of Loyalty Oaths

W.J. Astore

Matt Taibbi and Walter Kirn on “Catch-22” and Bureaucratic Madness

I wanted to share with you a conversation between Matt Taibbi and Walter Kirn on Joseph Heller’s classic satire, “Catch-22,” that focuses on the idea of loyalty oaths but that has much broader implications for our society today. Their entire conversation is well worth reading, but this passage is especially penetrating and important.

Profess your loyalty with a baseball cap for Armed Forces Day. $50 or less. Buy them for everyone in your family. You can’t be too patriotic — or too careful.

Matt Taibbi: That seems like a good place to segue into the story from this week.

On Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” in particular, “The Great Loyalty Oath Crusade.”

Walter Kirn: So we don’t end up being polite and going, no, you do it. No, you do it. It’s Chapter 11 of Catch-22 entitled “Captain Black.” Some people know it as the chapter called “The Great Loyalty Oath Crusade.” It tells a very simple story. There’s an officer on the air base where Catch-22 is set, and he’s been passed over for promotion. His name’s Captain Black, and he lost out when another officer was killed in battle, he thought he would succeed to his post, but he didn’t. Another guy, Major Major, got the job. So how is he going to take his revenge? How is he going to become important on the base? He comes up with the notion that he will start forcing all the troops and all the bombers and the crews of the different aircraft to take a “loyalty oath”, which he has to authorize before they can do anything.

And not just one loyalty oath, because they easily pass that test. They do it, but it’s two, three, four, until the point where the entire air base and its missions are paralyzed by the need to recite these oaths. If you want to get your plane off the ground, if you want to fuel your plane, if you want to eat lunch, you have to recite one of these oaths. And finally, the bureaucratic necessity of reciting oaths completely paralyzes the entire operation such that Heller says they were no longer able to even respond to emergencies. They were no longer able to respond to reality, because almost all they were doing was reciting these oaths over and over and over.

And it was assumed that if you had recited one oath and a minute had passed before you had recited the next one, that you might have become disloyal in the meantime. I guess what this all is a metaphor for is the notion that requiring loyalty of people is a bottomless request, which finally becomes an end in itself. Just as we saw at the hearing yesterday, let’s not get to the substance of what you’re alleging here. Let’s have you recite the oath first and did you recite it correctly and could you recite it again, and do you agree that it’s necessary? So by a Zeno’s arrow thing, you never get to the issue of anything because loyalty must always be the primary question and it is always doubted.

Matt Taibbi: Heller has this great line about the doctrine of “continual reaffirmation” that Captain Black originated. And the quote is,

A doctrine designed to trap all those men who had become disloyal since the last time they had signed a loyalty oath the day before.

Nobody has the authority to stop this thing. Even the colonel in the group, Colonel Korn, he’s complaining: “It’s that idiot Black off on a patriotism binge.”

But when they’re deciding what to do about it, he just says:

Well, this will probably run its course soon. I think the best thing now is to send Captain Black a letter of total support and hope he drops dead before he does too much damage.

In other words, even the people who have authority, once one of these things gets going, nobody wants to get in front of this buzz saw. And if they do, they get cut down.

Walter Kirn: You can’t stop it because as is the abiding theme of Catch-22, you can never get off the hook with a bureaucracy that wants everything. You can never pass the loyalty oath because the one you took was a minute ago, are you taking one now? The perfect loyalty oath, in other words from a bureaucratic point of view, is one that no one can ever pass. One that never ends.

The perfect accusation in a witch trial is one that you can never be innocent of. And I wrote, “The more absurd loyalty oath, and the more often it is required, the better.” Anyone can repeat a loyalty oath that’s true and it is offered only once, but only the truly submissive will repeat it over and over until it loses all meaning. Because finally, what bureaucracy wants of you is humiliation and submission. It doesn’t want an answer. It doesn’t want to give you a pass and say, “You are free to go now. You may enter, you may run your mission. You’ve got your credential.” It wants total power. And total power can only be had if you are never declared loyal.

Matt Taibbi: The only people who succeed in this system are complete sociopaths with no shame. I think that’s one of the great things about this chapter is the way he starts off, Heller — one of the great things about this book in general is his ability to make snap characterizations. I mean, it takes even very skilled authors a paragraph to capture the personality of a person, but he’s able to do it in a sentence or two over and over again.

With Captain Black at the very start of this chapter, he gets a phone call that the unit is going to have to attack Bologna, which is heavily guarded and is going to involve a tremendous number of casualties. There’s a scene:

Captain Black brightened immediately. Bologna, he exclaimed with delight. Well, I’ll be damned.” He broke into loud laughter, “Bologna?” He laughed again and shook his head in pleasant amazement. “Boy, I can’t wait to see those bastards’ faces when they find out they’re going to Bologna.”

And then he goes down again and keeps repeating this.

”That’s right, you bastards, Bologna.” He kept repeating to all the bombardier who inquired incredulously if they were really going to Bologna. “Ha, ha, ha! Eat your livers, you bastards.”

He’s a total sadist. The only thing that has any meaning in his life is that as you said, he was passed over for this promotion when somebody else got killed. The person who stepped in his place was Major Major, a hilarious character to whom all kinds of things happen. Among his distinctive qualities is that he looks like Henry Fonda. When the officers are talking about this, this is where the idea for the loyalty oath comes:

Captain Black asserted that Major Major really was Henry Fonda. And when they remarked it Major Major was somewhat odd. Captain Black announced that he was a communist.

“They’re taking over everything.” He would declare rebelliously. “Well, you fellows can stand around and let them if you want to, but I’m not going to. I’m doing something about it. From now on I’m going to make every son of a bitch who comes to my intelligence tent sign a loyalty oath.”

There’s a great line. “He had really hit on something.” That’s when it starts this whole description of how you have to sign an oath to go to the PX to buy anything, to get your hair cut, to get paid, to do anything. This idiotic, insipid character, who has no positive qualities and is a pure careerist, for whom even the death of other people is totally meaningless, he’s exactly the person who succeeds in this bureaucracy, because bureaucracies are designed to elevate such people.

Walter Kirn: This is why literature is a superior form of analysis for the human condition over politics. Politics has us believe that the content of our arguments matter, that the positions and ideas we’re arguing about matter, but literature suggests that rituals are rituals and human passions are human passions. And that sweep aside what people are talking about and what people are saying and focus on what they’re actually doing. And in this case, we have Black proclaiming Major Major a communist, and the suspicion of communism among the troops becomes the basis for the Great Loyalty Oath. But it could just as well be that he could have accused them of being MAGA or fascists, because loyalty oaths are the same no matter what the occasion for their administration. They are rituals of dominance and submission, they are ritualistic affirmations of the bureaucracy’s preeminence. [Emphasis added.]

We constantly are amazed by the fact that the same machinations that the anti-communist McCarthyite put into place in the fifties are now being used by the liberal party against the presumably patriotic side. In other words, we now have not communist-hunting but MAGA-hunting. And we think that something has changed because politics makes us think it’s all about the ideas. It’s not. It’s all about the whatand who sits above, and who sits below; who administers the oath and who has to take it. Who has the power to come up with an oath, and who is so unfortunate that they have to recite them?

What we’re seeing in American politics is a recapitulation in terms of structure and form of an old drama. But the words have changed, and the names for evil have swapped. And in some ways the D or the R on the desk, the Democrat or Republican plaque, has changed sides, but we’re seeing the same thing. What Heller’s showing in this novel is that bureaucracy itself serves its own interests over and above any particular problem that it’s there to solve.

These people are there to win a war. The great irony of Catch-22 is that this intense deadly war that’s going on in the background, is, actually in the background. What people are really concerned about are their promotions, whether they’ve filled out forms correctly, have they won the esteem of their superior? Have they triumphed over their inferior? And meanwhile, people are dying, thousands of people are being bombed and planes are going down. But that hardly matters when there are new stripes to be won for your uniform, or an extra lunch to be had at the commissary, or whatever. So the book’s continuing comedy is the inversion of values in which the institution is all important, and the purposes are forgotten. [Emphasis added]


OK, I’m back. I hope you enjoyed reading that passage. It helps to explain why the Pentagon/MICC continues to grow in power even as it’s lost every major war since World War II (ironically the historical setting for Heller’s brilliant satire).

Believe me, I’ve met my share of officers in the U.S. military who weren’t concerned with the mission or higher ideals like their oath to the Constitution. They were concerned about getting promoted and enlarging their own personal rice bowl (an image used often when I was on active duty).

How to stop a runaway bureaucracy that insists on your loyalty and obedience, repeated ad infinitum, is one of the great issues of this moment. With military propaganda in full swing this weekend (It’s Armed Forces Day!), you had best salute the troops smartly and show your loyalty, as baseball players are, by wearing special olive drab military-themed caps to celebrate “our nation’s finest.” Available for less that $50 each at MLB!

If you miss this weekend (Are you sure you’re a real American?), there’ll be themed caps for Memorial Day and July 4th. And if you’re not a baseball fan, the NFL will get you in the fall at all its “Salute to Service” celebrations.

Just remember to be loyal — very loyal.

You can make a lot of money off sick people

W.J. Astore

America’s true national health care plan

When I was teaching college in Pennsylvania, I had a colleague whose car sported a telling bumper sticker: “Our national health care plan: Don’t get sick.” As true as that is, I think America’s real health care plan can be summed up by a corporate motto of my own coining: You can make a lot of money off sick people.

This came to mind today as my wife returned from a routine medical appointment. She overheard a lady complaining to a clerk that she didn’t understand her health insurance and why her latest procedure hadn’t been covered. Meanwhile, my wife noticed a sign about Medicare at the office, something about a new requirement that medical professionals were apologizing for in advance. And so it goes in the land of the free …

If you’re an American and 100% pleased with your medical care, you are a rare bird indeed. It’s an incredibly complex “system” with its own logic driven by the need to make money, whether off drugs or surgical procedures or whatever. I’ve talked to doctors and they tell me they’re typically allotted fifteen minutes per patient. They have to see a certain number of patients per hour, creating billable actions in the computer tablets they increasingly carry around with them, to fulfill quotas and to stay in business.

A heart specialist I was seeing, a truly sympathetic and knowledgable doctor, got fed up with all the emphasis on billing and money and took another position at a different hospital where he could do more research. At his practice, I noted new computer monitors in the examination rooms featuring videos that advertised drugs to lower cholesterol, improve blood pressure, and the like, along with pamphlets featuring shiny happy people taking various drugs related to heart and blood care. Honestly, I felt good for my doctor that he was going to a better job for him even as I felt bad for all his patients, myself included.

A big reason I supported Bernie Sanders was his seemingly empathetic and principled call for affordable health care for all, some kind of national plan that would deemphasize the profit motive, ending the tragic reality that some Americans have to choose between their own health and bankruptcy. Naturally, the Democratic Party, in league with big Pharma, health insurers (they should be called health deniers for their business model that seeks to deny claims whenever possible), and other corporate forces, threw their considerable financial support behind corporate tools like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.

He promised a public option. I guess he forgot about it.

Speaking of Biden, he of course promised a public (government) option on the campaign trail, only to renege on that promise once he became president. Biden, a tired corporate hack, will never go to bat for affordable health care, which is no endorsement of his Republican opponents. Their “plan” consists of encouraging bake sales and go-fund-me appeals along with vague hints of Scrooge-like notions: If you can’t afford your health care, you had best die to decrease the surplus population.

Are there no prisons, no workhouses?

The health of our society, in a sense, is the aggregate of the health of 333 million of us. Americans are increasingly sick, obese, depressed, tense, even suicidal. And it seems the first question some “providers” ask here is: How can I make money off this?

P.S. I kid you not. I just got an email from Amazon saying that “Your new pharmacy is here.” I feel happier and healthier already!

Trump Wants to Stop the Killing in Ukraine

W.J. Astore

The Horror!

Former President Donald Trump went on CNN last week and said something sensible. When asked if he wanted Ukraine to win the war, Trump replied he didn’t think about the war in terms of winning and losing. His priority was to stop the killing on both sides by ending the war. Naturally, he boasted he could end the war in 24 hours, surely a hyperbolic claim, though if the U.S. ended its massive package of military and financial aid, Ukraine would likely be forced to sue for peace, and quickly.

Interestingly, the CNN anchor badgered Trump, trying to get him to say he favored Ukraine over Russia and that Ukraine had to win. Trump, to his credit, was having none of it. Nor would Trump declare that Putin was a war criminal for the sensible reason that such a declaration would make a diplomatic settlement much more problematic.

Readers here know I’m no fan of Trump. I think he’s a dangerous con man without a clue about what public service is about. But I give him credit for not giving the easy answers, the expected ones, that Ukraine must win, that Russia must lose, that Putin is a war criminal, and that as long as Ukraine wins it really doesn’t matter how many people die in this disastrous war.

Former President Donald Trump at the recent CNN “Town Hall”

The CNN anchor never bothered to define what “winning” looks like for Ukraine. I assume she meant something like this: All Russian troops expelled from Ukraine; democracy flourishing in Ukraine as the country is rebuilt, in part from sanctions put on Russia; Ukraine eventually joining NATO; and perhaps even the end of Vladimir Putin’s power and his possible execution as a war criminal. Such a decisive win for Ukraine is unlikely; what I see is more stalemate, more dead and wounded on both sides, more destruction, and escalatory pressure as the war continues without a clear end in sight.

I can’t fault Trump for wanting to stop the killing in the Russia-Ukraine War. I also can’t fault him for refusing to take the bait and declaring Ukraine must win. It matters because a lot of Americans find Trump attractive because he’s willing to pose as antiwar. Clearly, he’s an alternative to the Democrats and Joe Biden who insist on prosecuting the war for reasons that I believe are largely cynical and self-interested.

Americans are war-weary. Very few Americans, I think, truly want a war with Russia or China. Trump is a serial liar, a venal manipulator, and a selfish braggart, but he doesn’t want World War III. Who knows: that very fact alone might be enough to win him four more years in the Oval Office.

Are you listening, Democrats?

Fighting the Military-Industrial Complex

W.J. Astore

Its biggest advantage is that it knows what it wants

The military-industrial-congressional complex (MICC) has a huge advantage over its critics. Its proponents are united by greed and power. They know exactly what they want. Like Johnny Rocco in “Key Largo,” they want MORE. More money. More authority. And obviously more weapons and more war. 

Whereas critics of the MICC tend to approach the beast from different angles with different emphases.  Tactical differences lead to fissures. Fissures prevent coalitions from forming. Unity is lacking, and not for want of trying. And so the MICC rumbles on, unchallenged by any societal force that is remotely its size.

A colleague of mine, Dennis Showalter, was fond of a saying that helps to explain the situation. Critics and intellectuals, he said, have a propensity to see the fourth side of every three-sided problem. Analysis leads to paralysis. The tyranny of small differences prevents unanimity of purpose.

Dennis Showalter, a fine historian and a better friend.

Another key strength of the MICC is reflected in an alternate acronym: the MICIMATT, which adds the intelligence “community,” the mainstream media, academe, and various think tanks to the military, industry, and Congress. To that we might also add the world of sports, entertainment (Hollywood and TV especially), and the very idea of patriotism in America with all its potent symbols. I’d even add Christianity here, the muscular version practiced in the U.S. rather than the compassionate version promulgated by Christ.

When you focus just on the MICC, you miss the wellsprings of its power. It’s not just about greed and authority, it’s about full-spectrum dominance of all aspects of American life and society.

America hasn’t won a major war since World War II, but the MICC has won the struggle for societal dominance in America. Serious challenges to it will require Americans to put aside differences in the name of a greater cause of peace and sanity. The wildcard here, of course, is the ever-present hyping of fear by the MICC.

FDR told Americans the only thing we truly needed to fear was fear itself. Fear paralyzes the mind and inhibits action. Fear is the only darkness, Master Po said in “Kung Fu.”

If we can overcome our fear and our differences to focus on building a more compassionate world, a world in harmony with nature and life, then maybe, just maybe, we can see the foolishness of funding and embracing an MICC based on an unnatural pursuit of destruction and death.

Are the Best Years of My Country Behind Me?

W.J. Astore

Reflections on a Long-Ago Tour of Los Alamos and the Trinity Atomic Test Site

Also at

I turn 60 this year. My health is generally good, though I have aches and pains from a form of arthritis. I’m not optimistic enough to believe that the best years of my life are ahead of me, nor so pessimistic as to assume that the best years are behind me. But I do know this, however sad it may be to say: the best years of my country are behind me.

Indeed, there are all too many signs of America’s decline, ranging from mass shootings to mass incarceration to mass hysteria about voter fraud and “stolen” elections to massive Pentagon and police budgets. But let me focus on just one sign of all-American madness that speaks to me in a particularly explosive fashion: this country’s embrace of the “modernization” of its nuclear arsenal at a price tag of at least $2 trillion over the next 30 years or so — and that staggering sum pales in comparison to the price the world would pay if those “modernized” weapons were ever used.

Just over 30 years ago in 1992, a younger, still somewhat naïve version of Bill Astore visited Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico and the Trinity test site in Alamogordo where the first atomic device created at that lab, a plutonium “gadget,” was detonated in July 1945. At the time I took that trip, I was a captain in the U.S. Air Force, co-teaching a course at the Air Force Academy on — yes, would you believe it? — the making and use of the atomic bombs that devastated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II. At the time of that visit, the Soviet Union had only recently collapsed, inaugurating what some believed to be a “new world order.” No longer would this country have to focus its energy on waging a costly, risky cold war against a dangerous nuclear-armed foe. Instead, we were clearly headed for an era in which the United States could both dominate the planet andbecome “a normal country in normal times.”

I was struck, however, by the anything-but-celebratory mood at Los Alamos then, though I really shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, budget cuts loomed. With the end of the Cold War, who needed LANL to design new nuclear weapons for an enemy that no longer existed? In addition, there was already an effective START treaty in place with Russia aimed at reducing strategic nuclear weapons instead of just limiting their growth.

At the time, it even seemed possible to imagine a gradual withering away of such great-power arsenals and the coming of a world liberated from apocalyptic nightmares. Bipartisan support for nuclear disarmament would, in fact, persist into the early 2000s, when then-presidential candidate Barack Obama joined old Cold War hawks like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Senator Sam Nunn in calling for nothing less than a nuclear-weapons-free world.

An Even More Infernal Holocaust

It was, of course, not to be and today we once again find ourselves on an increasingly apocalyptic planet. To quote Pink Floyd, the child is grown and the dream is gone. All too sadly, Americans have become comfortably numb to the looming threat of a nuclear Armageddon. And yet the Bulletin of Atomic Scientist’s Doomsday Clockcontinues to tick ever closer to midnight precisely because we persist in building and deploying ever more nuclear weapons with no significant thought to either the cost or the consequences.

Over the coming decades, in fact, the U.S. military plans to deploy hundreds — yes, hundreds! — of new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in silos in Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and elsewhere; a hundred or so nuclear-capable B-21 stealth bombers; and a brand new fleet of nuclear-missile-firing submarines, all, of course, built in the name of necessity, deterrence, and keeping up with the Russians and the Chinese. Never mind that this country already has thousands of nuclear warheads, enough to comfortably destroy more than one Earth. Never mind that just a few dozen of them could tip this world of ours into a “nuclear winter,” starving to death most creatures on it, great and small. Nothing to worry about, of course, when this country must — it goes without saying — remain the number one possessor of the newest and shiniest of nuclear toys.

And so those grim times at Los Alamos when I was a “child” of 30 have once again become boom times as I turn 60. The LANL budget is slated to expand like a mushroom cloud from $3.9 billion in 2021 to $4.1 billion in 2022, $4.9 billion in 2023, and likely to well over $5 billion in 2024. That jump in funding enables “upgrades” to the plutonium infrastructure at LANL. Meanwhile, some of America’s top physicists and engineers toil away there on new designs for nuclear warheads and bombs meant for one thing only: the genocidal slaughter of millions of their fellow human beings. (And that doesn’t even include all the other life forms that would be caught in the blast radii and radiation fallout patterns of those “gadgets.”)

The very idea of building more and “better” nuclear weapons should, of course, be anathema to us all. Once upon a time, I taught courses on the Holocaust after attending a teaching seminar at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Now, the very idea of modernizing our nuclear arsenal strikes me as the equivalent of developing upgraded gas chambers and hotter furnaces for Auschwitz. After all, that’s the infernal nature of nuclear weapons: they transform human beings into matter, into ash, killing indiscriminately and reducing us all to nothingness.

I still recall talking to an employee of Los Alamos in 1992 who assured me that, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the lab would undoubtedly have to repurpose itself and find an entirely new mission. Perhaps, he said, LANL scientists could turn their expertise toward consumer goods and so help make America more competitive vis-à-vis Japan, which, in those days, was handing this country its lunch in the world of electronics. (Remember the Sony Walkman, the Discman, and all those Japanese-made VCRs, laser disc players, and the like?)

I nodded and left Los Alamos hopeful, thinking that the lab could indeed become a life-affirming force. I couldn’t help imagining then what this country might achieve if some of its best scientists and engineers devoted themselves to improving our lives instead of destroying them. Today, it’s hard to believe that I was ever so naïve.

“Success” at Hiroshima

My next stop on that tour was Alamogordo and the Trinity test site, then a haunted, still mildly radioactive desert landscape thanks to the world’s first atomic explosion in 1945. Yes, before America nuked Japan that August at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we nuked ourselves. The Manhattan Project team, led by J. Robert Oppenheimer, believed a test was needed because of the complex implosion device used in the plutonium bomb. (There was no test of the uranium bomb used at Hiroshima since it employed a simpler triggering device. Its first “test” was Hiroshima itself that August 6th and the bomb indeed “worked,” as predicted.)

J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father” of the atomic bomb

So, our scientists nuked the desert near the Jornada del Muerto, the “dead man’s journey” as the Spanish conquistadors had once named it in their own febrile quest for power. While there, Oppenheimer famously reflected that he and his fellow scientists had become nothing short of “Death, the destroyer of worlds.” In the aftermath of Hiroshima, he would, in fact, turn against the military’s pursuit of vastly more powerful hydrogen or thermonuclear, bombs. For that, in the McCarthy era, he was accused of being a Soviet agent and stripped of his security clearance.

Oppenheimer’s punishment should be a reminder of the price principled people pay when they try to stand in the way of the military-industrial complex and its pursuit of power and profit.

But what really haunts me isn’t the “tragedy” of Opie, the American Prometheus, but the words of Hans Bethe, who worked alongside him on the Manhattan Project. Jon Else’s searing documentary filmThe Day After Trinity, movingly catches Bethe’s responses on hearing about the bomb’s harrowing “success” at Hiroshima.

His first reaction was one of fulfillment. The crash program to develop the bomb that he and his colleagues had devoted their lives to for nearly three years was indeed a success. His second, he said, was one of shock and awe. What have we done, he asked himself. What have we done? His final reaction: that it should never be done again, that such weaponry should never, ever, be used against our fellow humans.

And yet here we are, nearly 80 years after Trinity and our country is still devoting staggering resources and human effort to developing yet more “advanced” nuclear weapons and accompanying war plans undoubtedly aimed at China, North Korea, Russia, and who knows how many other alleged evildoers across the globe.

Fire and Fury Like the World Has Never Seen?

Perhaps now you can see why I say that the best years of my country are behind me. Thirty years ago, I caught a fleeting glimpse out of the corner of my eye (Pink Floyd again) of a better future, a better America, a better world. It was one where a sophisticated lab like Los Alamos would no longer be dedicated to developing new ways of exterminating us all. I could briefly imagine the promise of the post-Cold-War moment — that we would all get a “peace dividend” — having real meaning, but it was not to be.

And so, I face my sixtieth year on this planet with trepidation and considerable consternation. I marvel at the persuasive power of America’s military-industrial-congressional complex. In fact, consider it the ultimate Houdini act that its masters have somehow managed to turn nuclear missiles and bombs into stealth weapons — in the sense that they have largely disappeared from our collective societal radar screen. We go about our days, living and struggling as always, even as our overlords spend trillions of our tax dollars on ever more effective ways to exterminate us all. Indeed, at least some of our struggles could obviously be alleviated with an infusion of an extra $2 trillion over the coming decades from the federal government.

Instead, we face endless preparations for a planetary holocaust that would make even the Holocaust of World War II a footnote to a history that would cease to exist. The question is: What can we do to stop it?

The answer, I think, is simply to stop. Stop buying new nuclear stealth bombers, new ICBMs, and new ultra-expensive submarines. Reengage with the other nuclear powers to halt nuclear proliferation globally and reduce stockpiles of warheads. At the very least, commit to a no-first-use policy for those weapons, something our government has so far refused to do.

I’ve often heard the expression “the nuclear genie is out of the bottle,” implying that it can never be put back in again. Technology controls us, in other words.

That’s the reality we’re all supposed to accept, but don’t believe it. America’s elected leaders and its self-styled warrior-generals and admirals have chosen to build such genocidal weaponry. They seek budgetary authority and power, while the giant weapons-making corporations pursue profits galore. Congress and presidents, our civilian representatives, are corrupted or coerced by a system that ensnares their minds. Much like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, the nuclear button becomes their “precious,” a totem of power. Consider President Trump’s boast to Kim Jong-un that “his” nuclear button was much bigger than theirs and his promise that, were the North Korean leader not to become more accommodating, his country would “face fire and fury like the world has never seen.” The result: North Korea has vastly expandedits nuclear arsenal.

It wouldn’t have to be this way. To cite Dorothy Day, the Catholic peace activist, “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.” Don’t accept it, America. Reject it. Get out in the streets and protest as Americans did during the nuclear freeze movement of the early 1980s. Challenge your local members of Congress. Write to the president. Raise your voice against the merchants of death, as Americans proudly did (joined by Congress!) in the 1930s.

If we were to reject nuclear weapons, to demand a measure of sanity and decency from our government, then maybe, just maybe, the best years of my country would still lie ahead of me, no matter my growing aches and pains on what’s left of my life’s journey.

Not to be morbid, but I suppose we all walk our own Jornada del Muerto. I’d like what’s left of mine to remain unlit by the incendiary glare of nuclear explosions. I’d prefer that my last days weren’t spent in a hardscrabble struggle for survival in a world cast into darkness and brutality by a nuclear winter. How about you?

Rot at the Supreme Court

W.J. Astore

Injustices, Not Justice

A big part of the American experiment is the idea we are a nation of laws as defined by the U.S. Constitution. The law is supposed to apply equally to all, and disinterested, impartial, justices are supposed to make rulings that are unaffected by money or race or religion or any other factor other than the law itself and what’s right and what isn’t.

That doesn’t describe today’s Supreme Court of the U.S. (SCOTUS).

It’s nice to see Justice Thomas smiling so broadly

Justice Clarence Thomas has accepted all kinds of undeclared gifts from a billionaire supporter, including tuition for his great-nephew at private boarding schools. Justice Neil Gorsuch profited from a real estate transaction with a rich law firm CEO with extensive business before the court. Apparently, SCOTUS polices itself here, and so far the SCOTUS cop on watch is asleep.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh gained his seat under a storm of controversy. I wrote in September 2018 that he should withdraw his name from consideration, based on the demeanor he showed at his Senate hearing, but of course he didn’t. Justice Amy Coney Barrett was specifically “saved” by President Trump to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg; everyone knew she was a conservative Catholic opposed to abortion with a clear record of being pro-business to boot.

You’d think the #1 criterion for a SCOTUS justice would be unassailable integrity, but today it seems to be predictable partisan positions (both political parties are guilty here, though Republicans are more blatant). Allegiance to moneyed interests is a big plus. The latter point is why these justices see no problem with accepting “gifts,” otherwise known as bribes (for that is what they are, in plain speak).

SCOTUS, in short, is becoming a tinier version of Congress, featuring partisan hacks serving elite interests. Of course, not all SCOTUS justices are equally guilty here, but if the court fails to police itself, they are all accessories to the actions of Thomas, Gorsuch, et al.

If we had the best legal minds of unassailable integrity on SCOTUS, a layman like me would have little chance of predicting how the court would rule. Yet we generally know ahead of time the decision SCOTUS will reach and even how the justices will vote.

Sadly, partisan predictability and allegiance to powerful interests rule. And so we have a SCOTUS featuring an increasing number of injustices in place of justice.

America’s Faith in War

W.J. Astore

Wars Destroy, They Don’t Create

For various reasons, America’s ruling class has a great love of war, even as America’s non-ruling-classes have a general indifference to it, as long as its destructiveness is kept overseas and out of sight.

It’s strange indeed that we have such faith in war: such faith in destruction as being progressive.  Americans are a hyper-aggressive and trigger-happy bunch, quick to anger, slow to think. Fear, anger, and pride make us a menace to various peoples on the receiving end of American firepower, yet somehow we see ourselves as reasonable peacemakers.  Such a mass delusion can only be sustained through massive propaganda, a “victory culture” if you will, supported by all those Hollywood war movies, TV shows featuring SEALs and the like, military pageantry at sporting events, and so on.

Speaking of the military and sports, day 2 of the NFL draft opened with an array of military personnel in dress uniform on the big stage in Kansas City as fans broke into “USA! USA!” chants. Yes, I understand there are a lot of football fans in the military, and I’m sure there were more than a few service members and veterans in civvies in the audience. Yet, ask yourself: What are military members in uniform doing on the stage at the NFL draft? What role are they playing?

WTF? Troops being used as props by the NFL. Cue the “USA! USA!” chants

The answer is obvious. The military uses sports to help with recruiting, and the NFL uses the military to burnish its patriotic image. It’s supposed to generate feel-good moments for the live audience there and all the millions watching at home, but it just left me shaking my head at the opportunism and cynicism of both the NFL and the Pentagon. 

Speaking again of the NFL draft, it’s curious how each team has a draft room of experts that is sometimes referred to as a “war” room. The NFL loves its military metaphors and its “warrior” players featuring quarterbacks with “howitzers” for arms who throw “missiles” downfield.

I’ve never been keen on the whole “warrior” mystique because I find it in direct opposition to the citizen-soldier ideal of America’s founders. America was not supposed to have a “warrior” caste like the British had, occupied by the second sons of the aristocracy who had nothing better to do than to wage colonial and imperial wars overseas in the cause of plunder and profit. But the warrior ideal has been all the rage in the U.S. military since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and especially since 9/11.

In a recent article for TomDispatch, Joshua Frank cited just such a sentiment (from 2007) by a troop suffering from Gulf War Syndrome: “I’m a warrior, and warriors want to fulfill their mission.”

This mentality that they’re mission-driven warriors has been drilled into U.S. troops.  But our troops are supposed to be loyal to the U.S. Constitution, not to the mission. If you’re simply a warrior, you exist for war, full stop. You’re no longer a citizen-soldier (or citizen-airman, etc.).  You’re not really a citizen at all.  Warriors are disposable, simply grunts, so who cares what happens to them? You live by the sword, you die by it, end of story.

I wish more people recognized the danger and implications of this warrior mentality.

Finally, a couple of recent articles to consider.  Chris Hedges writes about the enemy within, America’s vast military-industrial complex, that is sucking the life out of what’s left of American democracy. And Caitlin Johnstone writes about how America’s aggressive and imperial presence is always advertised and disguised as “defensive” in nature. Both articles are worth reading as an antidote to all the reflexive “USA! USA!” war chants.