War as a Meteor

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W.J. Astore

A great book on the brutality of war and its aftershocks is Scott Anderson’s Triage (Scribner, 1998).  Anderson, a war journalist and author, captures the inhumanity of war as well as its lingering effects on war veterans themselves and the people in their lives.

One particular passage in Triage captures the intrinsic nature of war in a way that all proponents of war as politics should ponder.  The passage deals with the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, but it could refer to almost any war at any time:

To Joaquin, the war had hurtled down on Spain like a meteor–unforeseeable, a bad coincidence of nature–and even before those first tremors subsided, even before that first hysteria of bloodletting had spent itself, already the brutal and the daring had found their moment, had begun creeping out from their lairs to take over the land. And because decent men never act as quickly as tyrants, the decent of both sides were soon dispensed with. And because cruelty has always been man’s most awesome weapon–capable of shocking entire nations, entire peoples, into submission–the spoils of victory went to those who showed mercy the least, who knew cruelty the best.”

Yes, war unleashes cruelty and brutality, giving free rein to tyrants of all sorts.  What’s amazing is how infrequently this truth is captured in America media and especially in Hollywood movies about war, which celebrate heroism even when they bother to showcase how brutal war can be (see, for example, “Saving Private Ryan” or “Lone Survivor“).

This is not to say that war is always wrong; only that war is rarely noble.  Even when the cause is just, the means are cruel and despicable.

In a country made by war, Americans would do well to remember this.

All the Insecurity Money Can Buy

It's not nice to fool with nuclear missiles
It’s not nice to fool with nuclear missiles

W.J. Astore

The United States spends nearly a trillion dollars a year on national defense, to include wars, homeland security, a bewildering array of intelligence agencies, and the maintenance of nuclear weapons.  Are we buying greater security with all this money?

Consider the following fact.  A private contractor hired to vet security clearances for US intelligence agencies has been accused of faulty and incomplete background checks in 665,000 cases.  Yes, you read that right.  More than half a million background checks for security clearances were not performed properly.  Doesn’t that make you feel safer?

Meanwhile, our nuclear forces have been bedeviled by scandal and mismanagement.  The latest is a cheating scandal involving 34 nuclear launch officers and the potential compromise of nuclear surety.  Previous scandals include a vice admiral, the deputy commander of US nuclear forces, being relieved of command for using forged gambling chips in a casino.  Far worse was the incident in 2007 when a B-52 flew across the US with six “live” nuclear missiles on board. (The missiles were not supposed to have nuclear warheads in them.)

Public servants, especially military officers who put “integrity first,” are expected to be good stewards of the trillions of dollars entrusted to them.  What to make, then, of an alarming bribery scandal in the Pacific, involving a wealthy Malaysian contractor who allegedly used money, hookers, and gifts to bribe several high-ranking US naval officers into awarding him lucrative contracts?  Something tells me this was not the pivot to the Pacific that the Obama Administration had in mind.

Such stories show how moth-eaten the shroud for our national security state really is.  Small wonder that we’re told to avert our eyes (Hey!  It’s classified!) rather than inspecting it closely.

What lessons are we to draw from such betrayals of public trust?  One big one: Our “security” apparatus has grown so large and all-encompassing that it has become far more powerful than the threat it is supposed to check.  Call it the enemy within, the inevitable corruption that accompanies unchecked power.

Any institution, no matter if it puts integrity first, will be compromised if it’s given too much power, especially when that institution veils itself in secrecy.

“With great power comes great responsibility,” as Peter Parker’s gentle Uncle Ben reminded him.  It’s an aphorism from “Spiderman,” but it’s no less true for that.  We’ve given great power to our national security apparatus, but that power is being exercised in ways that too often are irresponsible — and unaccountable.

And that doesn’t bode well for true security.

Update (1/28): Unfortunately, with great power often comes great irresponsibility, as this article on US military brass behaving badly indicates in today’s Washington Post.  And let’s not forget the US general and master of nuclear missiles who got drunk in Moscow while bragging about keeping the world safe — at least he enjoyed the banquet featuring tortillas stuffed with caviar and dill.

Update (2/5): A new story reveals that Army recruiters as well as civilians cheated the American taxpayer out of $100 million in recruiting bonuses.  The bonuses were aimed at boosting recruits during the difficult days of the Iraq War.  Sadly, it also boosted fraud within the Army, as some recruiters lined their own pockets with bonuses obtained under fraudulent terms.

Rulers’ Ideas Rule

Beware the bearded one!
Beware the bearded one!

W.J. Astore

I can’t remember where exactly, but I stumbled across this apothegm of Karl Marx:

“In every era, the ideas of the rulers are the ruling ideas.”

Striving for even more brevity, I truncated it to rulers’ ideas rule.

Contrarians of the world should unite to identify and challenge these ruling ideas. When they serve only the needs of the powerful, we should be prepared to mark them as dangerous and most likely as undemocratic. And we should work to change them.

What are some of today’s ruling ideas? I challenge you to come up with some. But on this Friday morning, here are ten that I see as ruling our lives:

1. That capitalism is the only economic system that works, and that rampant consumption is necessary to keep the economy growing.

2. Related to (1) is the idea that GDP and similar economic measures are the best measure of America’s strength.

3. That “success” in life is measured by money and titles and possessions.

4. Related to (3) is the idea that education that doesn’t end in a lucrative career is largely worthless.

5. That poor people and other disadvantaged groups are the way they are because they refuse to work.

6. That it’s absolutely necessary to spend nearly a trillion dollars a year on national defense, wars, homeland security, intelligence agencies, and nuclear weapons, all of which are justified in the name of “keeping us safe.”

7. That privatization is the way to improve everything, including public services like education, the prison system, and health care.

8. That corporate spending in elections is the equivalent to freedom of speech for individuals and is therefore protected by our Constitution as our nation’s founders intended.

9. That there’s no such thing as class warfare in the United States.

10. Related to (5), that there’s equality of opportunity for everyone in the United States, regardless of race, ethnicity, economic background, and so on. Thus those who “fail” do so because of their own failings, not because the system is rigged against them.

That’s my non-rigorous, somewhat off-the-cuff rendering of rulers’ ideas. Please add your ideas in the comments section. Contrarians of the world unite!

Is the Digital World Too Ephemeral?

Give me hardcopy!
Give me hardcopy!

W.J. Astore

A concern I have about the new borderless digital world is its ephemeral nature.  Even though I keep a blog and write a lot online, I still prefer books and hardcopy.  I clip newspaper articles.  I file them away and then occasionally resuscitate them and use them in class when I teach.

Hardcopy has a sense of permanence to it.  A certain heft.  Whereas our new digital world, as powerful as it is for instant access and personal customization, seems much more ephemeral to me.

I know similar complaints have been made throughout history.  The proliferation of books was deplored as leading to the decline of visual memory skills.  Television was equated with the end of civilization, with the medium becoming the message.

Perhaps what I’m truly lamenting is the slow decline of context, together with the erosion of deep memory.  The digital world we increasingly inhabit seems to encourage an ephemeral outlook in which history just becomes one damn thing after another.

To switch metaphorical images, the dynamism and flash of the digital world is much like a landscape with lots of beautiful shiny leaves and glistening flowers to attract our attention.

Yet, at least in our minds, the landscape is rootless.  Our gaze is enraptured, our minds are intrigued, but the moment is fleeting, and we fail to act.  We fail to act because we are entertained without being nurtured.

Let’s take smartphones, for example.  With their instant access to data, they seem to make us very smart indeed.  But access to knowledge (data recall) isn’t intelligence.  There’s simply no substitute for deep-seated intellectual curiosity and the desire to learn.

Smart phones are useful tools — a gateway to a dynamic digital world. But they’re not making us any smarter.  Perhaps they’re helping us to connect certain dots a little faster.  But are we connecting them in the right way?  And are they the right dots to connect?

Those are questions that smartphones can’t answer.  Those are questions that require deep, contextual, thinking.  And group discussion. Think Socrates and his followers, debating and discoursing. And acting.

Sometimes it’s best to disconnect from the matrix, find a quiet place for reflection, sink down some roots, and hit the books.  Then find other informed people and bounce your ideas off them.  Collisions of minds in informed discourse. Competing ideas feed the completing of actions for the common good.

As the Moody Blues might say, it’s a question of balance. The astral planes of the digital world can open new vistas, but let’s not forget the need to return to earth and get things done.

Chris Christie, You Lost My Vote

Chris Christie

Also at Huffington Post

In his non-apology about “bridgegate,” Governor Chris Christie lost my vote. In his “mistakes were clearly made” pabulum, Christie failed the test of leadership. It doesn’t matter whether you think Christie is a bully. It doesn’t matter how much Christie knew about the bridge lane closures and when he knew it. What matters is how he’s evaded responsibility for it. Evasiveness is the last quality we need in the next president of the United States.

When you’re the governor, you’re much like the pilot of a 747 or the captain of a ship. You’re in charge. You create a climate within your command. Your actions and behavior set the tone. Your crew looks to you as a model for their own behavior.

Obviously, Christie’s senior staffers looked to him and decided that petty retribution was perfectly consistent with the tone set by Christie himself. Maybe these staffers truly misread Christie. Even so, Christie chose them. Either these staffers rightly believed they were acting in accordance with Christie’s stated (and unstated) directives, or Christie empowered people within his organization who didn’t have a clue about his ideals. Neither conclusion reflects well on Christie.

What should Christie have done? He should have stepped up and offered an immediate and personal apology. He should have said “I’m sorry” to every motorist stuck in that traffic jam. And he should have apologized to every resident of New Jersey for the reckless disregard his staffers had for public safety.

In other words, this should have been his Truman moment, a time for “the buck stops here,” a time to man up and admit his responsibility as the captain of his ship.

During his “State of the State” address on January 14, Christie finally admitted his responsibility as governor for what happens on his watch. But it was a case of too little, too late.

He initially hid behind “the abject stupidity” of his staffers. Even in his address on the 14th, he continued to hide behind that old “mistakes were made” mantra, that classic passive voice construction of politicians seeking to duck direct responsibility.

Christie wants authority without personal responsibility. He’s quick to hold others responsible but not himself. He equivocates when he should be unequivocal.

And for those reasons he’s lost my vote in 2016.

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and The Contrary Perspective and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.

The Millionaires in Congress Don’t Care About Sending Your Son or Daughter to War

Please save us from flag lapel pins
Please save us from flag lapel pins

W.J. Astore

Yes, I know it’s a harsh claim that Members of Congress don’t care about sending your son or daughter off to war. Partly that’s because more than half of them are millionaires. And if they’re not millionaires now, they will be when they leave office and cash in as lobbyists and similar Beltway bandit jobs.  After all, it’s hard to sympathize with working-class families with sons and daughters in the military when 1) You’re rich (or at least comfortably well-off); and 2) You have no sons or daughters in the military, and never will.

I wrote to one of my senators in PA, Bob Casey, about the need to end our wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere — about the need to bring our troops home rather than continuing to place them in harm’s way for no reason that’s in our national interest. When I wrote, I asked him if he would send any of his four daughters to Afghanistan, or even if he’d urge any of them to serve our country in any capacity in the military. I never heard back from him or his staff, not that I was surprised.

Senator Bob Casey is a Catholic who went to Holy Cross in Massachusetts in the early 1980s. I’m a Catholic who did my ROTC service at Holy Cross in the early 1980s. We may have even crossed paths on campus. But Bob Casey is from a well-connected political family. I’m the son of a firefighter and a homemaker who joined ROTC to help pay for college. Bob Casey and his daughters have never had to think about military service except in the most abstract terms. They might applaud it, but they won’t do it.

The same was true for Mitt Romney and his five sons. Eager to salute the military; not eager to join and serve. Fortunate sons (and daughters), all.

You could say the same for virtually all Members of Congress today.  Almost no military service.  Few sons or daughters in the military, and certainly none in the front lines in combat branches.  Certainly, they’ll praise our troops.  They’ll salute the flag with vigor.  But what they won’t do is to send their loved ones into harm’s way.

Each and every time our Congress or our President sends troops into harm’s way, they should think whether they’d risk their own.  For example, it’s conceivable that President Obama’s oldest daughter, Malia, could join the military in 2015 at the age of seventeen.  (You can join the military at seventeen with parental permission.)  After basic and advanced training, many American teenagers have been sent into combat only to die before they’re out of their teen years.

Can we imagine such a tragic fate befalling the son or daughter of any prominent politician in the United States?  Of course not.  The burden of military service has perhaps never been shared equally in our history, but its inequality has never been more slanted than it is now.  The rich and privileged exempt their offspring from service (or at least from dangerous service), which only emboldens them when they cast their votes for more war.  In doing so, they risk nothing near and dear to them.  Heck, they may even pose as being “tough” and “uncompromising.”

Save me the flag lapel pins of our millionaire politicians and all their posing.  Want to support our troops?  If you’re young enough, quit Congress and enlist in the military.  Or be sure to encourage your own sons and daughters to join and serve in harm’s way.  At least then you can say you’ve made a sacrifice commensurate with those made by so many working-class families across the USA.

Reforming the National Security State (updated)

The World as a Confessional, with the NSA as its Priests
The World as Confessional, with the NSA as its Priests

W.J. Astore

At TomDispatch.com, Tom Engelhardt has an especially fine exposé of the National Security State as a religion with its own priesthood, holy books, dogma, and true believers/followers.

I recommend reading the entire article, but I do want to highlight some implications of his argument.  Like the Catholic Church (and I’m Catholic), the National Security State is hierarchical, conservative, and often anti-democratic.  We, the laity, have little if any say in how the system operates, even as we’re the ones who fill the coffers and collection plates.  We are subject to a militarized (or militant) aristocracy that sees itself as uniquely privileged, the “best and the brightest,” working to keep us safe from the devil of the day.  To question the system and privileges of the powerful is to risk being seen as an apostate.

But the Catholic Church is, at least in theory, dedicated to the cause of peace (though historically sometimes at the point of a sword).  The U.S. National Security State, despite (or rather because of) the evangelicals or true-believers in its midst, is dominated by a church militant and a church triumphant.  This is unsurprising.  Powerful militaries seek military solutions.  Defeats or stalemates like Iraq and Afghanistan are reinterpreted as triumphs (at least for the U.S. military).  If they defy reinterpretation, defeats can always be attributed to Judas-like figures within the body of the American politic, like the anti-war hippies of the Vietnam era (even if the latter looked more like Jesus than Lucifer).

The biggest problem is how the dominance of the National Security State weakens our democratic structures, including our right to privacy.  Consider the penetration and interception of all forms of electronic communication by the NSA and similar “intelligence” agencies.  Like the Catholic Church with its rite of confession, the NSA listens to our “sins” in the name of safeguarding us from harm.  In the bad old days, the Church used its rite of confession to gain access to the secrets of the powerful.  Leave it to the NSA to trump the Church by turning the whole world into a confessional booth.

Such a subversion of privacy doesn’t preserve democracy – it destroys it.  Like the Catholic Church of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the National Security State is choking on its own power and privileges, losing its sense of mission as it wallows in money and sanctimony.

Where is Martin Luther when you need him?  For like the Catholic Church in the 16th century, the U.S. National Security State needs a serious reformation.

Update (1/7): At TomDispatch.com, Nick Turse has a great article today on the growing reach and power of Special Operations Command (SOCOM) within the U.S. military.  It’s a powerful coda to Engelhardt’s article.  Extending the Catholic Church analogy, SOCOM in the U.S. military today is much like the Jesuit Order of the Catholic Church — missionaries of the American military across the world.  And like the Jesuits they see themselves as an elite, as true believers, as holy warriors deserving of secrecy and privilege and power.

As such, they believe they should not be accountable to the laity — meaning us.  Neither do they believe they are accountable to our legal representatives in Congress.  They answer to their Loyola (Admiral McRaven) and ultimately to the Pope (whoever the commander in chief happens to be, as long as he supports them).

The National Security State has truly become the new national religion of America.  We worship at its Pentagon of Power, its huge NSA facilities.  They are America’s true national cathedrals.