Judging by my local newspaper and email stream, Memorial Day is about sales and selling, a reminder that the business of America is business. But of course Memorial Day is truly about honoring the dead in America’s wars, the veterans who died defending freedom. Sadly, far too often wars are not fought for high ideals, but that is not the fault of the veteran.
As we remember American veterans this weekend, those who died in the name of defending our country and Constitution, we would do well to ask whether our sympathy for the dead should be limited only to those who fought under the U.S. flag, or whether we should extend it to “the enemy.” In other words, to all those who suffer and die in wars.
Consider the Vietnam War, a war the USA could and should have avoided. But we didn’t, and that war was prosecuted with a ruthlessness that was often barbaric. America lost more than 58,000 in that war, and their names are on the wall in Washington, D.C. We visit that wall and weep for our dead.
But what about the Vietnamese dead? Estimates vary, but Vietnam lost roughly three million people in that war, with some figures approaching four million. The war in Southeast Asia spread to Laos and Cambodia as well, leading to genocide and the “killing fields” of Cambodia. Do we weep for their dead?
Vietnam today has friendly relations with the USA. The enemy of the 1960s is, if not an ally, at least a trade partner. There are warm friendships shared between our peoples, nurtured by cultural exchanges between the U.S. and Vietnam.
So, in the case of the Vietnam War, as we remember the American Vietnam veteran, should we not make room in our hearts to remember the Vietnamese veteran as well?
Ultimately, our fellow human beings are not the enemy. War is the enemy. A will to destruction is the enemy. And those caught up in war–the innocent victims on all sides–are worthy of being memorialized.
Far too often, national flags become little more than tribal symbols, much like bikers’ gangs and their colors. Wear the wrong color, belong to a rival gang, and violence, even a mass shooting, is the result.
Are we fated to keep saluting our own colors while reviling the colors of others? Are we fated to keep marching off to war under the American flag while killing those who fly a different flag?
Yes, there are necessary wars. I for one wouldn’t want to live under the Nazi Swastika. But history shows that necessary and just wars are rare. For every past war fought for a “just” cause, so many more have been fought for loot, money, power, territory, radical ideologies of one sort or another, dynastic advantage, prestige, and on and on. The one constant is the troops on all sides who march and die.
A memorial day that remembers the “enemy” dead as well as our own would, perhaps, be a small step toward a memorial day in the future with far fewer war dead to memorialize.
History may not repeat itself, but it sure does echo – often loudly. That’s the theme of Tom Engelhardt’s new article, “Tomorrow’s News Today: Writing History Before It Happens.” Tom comes up with nine headlines that we’ve seen before, and that (sadly) we’re likely to see again — and again. Here, shortened, are his nine “future” headlines:
U.S. airstrike obliterates foreign wedding party.
U.S. government surveillance is far more intrusive than previously reported.
Patriotic whistleblower charged with espionage.
Extremist groups exploit unrest caused by U.S. military strikes.
Supposed U.S. ally snubs Presidential summit/meeting.
Young American with Islamic sympathies caught planning terrorism in FBI sting operation.
“Lone Wolf” homegrown terrorist kills innocents; says he was inspired by ISIS.
Toddler kills mother in gun accident.
President says U.S. is both exceptional and indispensable.
You can read all of Tom’s article here. Perhaps the most sobering aspect of his article is how readily predictable (and repetitive) such headlines are. Toddlers shooting parents and siblings? Sadly predictable due to the proliferation of guns and lack of safety measures. Whistleblowers charged with espionage? The next Snowden or Manning should be ready to be so charged, even when (especially when) their motives are focused on informing ordinary Americans of what their government is up to.
Inspired by Tom’s article, I came up with seven grim “future” headlines of my own. I challenge our readers to come up with a few as well. Just add them to the “Comments” section below.
This is not simply a whimsical or cynical exercise: it’s a reminder of how narrow our country’s narrative appears to be, both now and in the immediate future. Details change, a name here, a country there, but the headlines remain the same. We need to act to change these headlines.
My seven “future” headlines
U.S.-trained army [in Iraq, Afghanistan, whereverstan] collapses, abandoning heavy weapons and ammo stocks to rebel forces.
Deep-sea oil drilling platform [in Gulf of Mexico, Arctic Circle, insert environmentally sensitive area] malfunctions, triggering major spill and environmental disaster.
U.S. President starts new war without Congressional declaration of war.
After declaring “mission accomplished” [in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, insert almost any Middle Eastern/African Country] and withdrawing U.S. troops, President [Bush, Obama, Bush/Clinton] orders troops to return as war is rekindled.
U.S. loses huge weapons cache [in Iraq, Afghanistan, whereverstan]; sends more weapons as replacements.
Lawbreaking major bank/corporation “too big to jail”; pays fine and admits no wrongdoing.
Pentagon weapon system, 10 years behind schedule and $100 billion over budget, fully funded by Congress.
Always in motion the future, as Yoda said. Let’s hope that a change for the better is not something that’s limited to “Star Wars” movies.
I’ve been writing for TomDispatch.com and the amazing Tom Engelhardt since 2007. When I wrote my first article, “Saving the Military from Itself: Why Medals and Metrics Mislead,” I never imagined I would come to write 37 more for Tom and his site over the next eight years. TomDispatch has given me an opportunity to write about topics like the elimination of nuclear weapons, the rise of American militarism, the perils of calling all troops in the military “heroes,” the over-hyping of American military prowess by our leaders, and many others. In all my articles, I hope I’ve offered a contrary perspective on the U.S. military as well as American culture, among other subjects.
My latest article, America’s mutant military, is a personal odyssey of sorts. I reflect on how the military has changed since I entered it in 1985. Today’s post-Cold War U.S. military is, to put it bluntly, not as I envisioned it would be as the Berlin Wall was falling and the Soviet Union was collapsing. Today’s military still has its Cold War weaponry and mindset largely intact, even as a new “mutant” military has emerged, based on special ops and connected to corporations and intelligence agencies, a military hybrid that is often shrouded in secrecy even as it’s celebrated openly in Hollywood action films.
My essay runs 2300 words, so I encourage you to read all of it at TomDispatch. What follows are a few excerpts from it:
It’s 1990. I’m a young captain in the U.S. Air Force. I’ve just witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, something I never thought I’d see, short of a third world war. Right now I’m witnessing the slow death of the Soviet Union, without the accompanying nuclear Armageddon so many feared. Still, I’m slightly nervous as my military gears up for an unexpected new campaign, Operation Desert Shield/Storm, to expel Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein’s military from Kuwait. It’s a confusing moment. After all, the Soviet Union was forever (until it wasn’t) and Saddam had been a stalwart U.S. friend, his country a bulwark against the Iran of the Ayatollahs. (For anyone who doubts that history, just check out the now-infamous 1983 photo of Donald Rumsfeld, then special envoy for President Reagan, all smiles and shaking hands with Saddam in Baghdad.) Still, whatever my anxieties, the Soviet Union collapsed without a whimper and the campaign against Saddam’s battle-tested forces proved to be a “cakewalk,” with ground combat over in a mere 100 hours.
Think of it as the trifecta moment: Vietnam syndrome vanquished forever, Saddam’s army destroyed, and the U.S. left standing as the planet’s “sole superpower.”
Post-Desert Storm, the military of which I was a part stood triumphant on a planet that was visibly ours and ours alone. Washington had won the Cold War. It had won everything, in fact. End of story. Saddam admittedly was still in power in Baghdad, but he had been soundly spanked. Not a single peer enemy loomed on the horizon. It seemed as if, in the words of former U.N. ambassador and uber-conservative Jeane Kirkpatrick, the U.S. could return to being a normal country in normal times.
[But it didn’t happen. With the Soviets gone, the U.S. military itself was now uncontained, and many hankered to use its power to achieve America’s goal of global power.]
Yet even as civilian leaders hankered to flex America’s military muscle in unpromising places like Bosnia and Somalia in the 1990s, and Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen in this century, the military itself has remained remarkably mired in Cold War thinking. If I could transport the 1990 version of me to 2015, here’s one thing that would stun him a quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union: the force structure of the U.S. military has changed remarkably little. Its nuclear triad of land-based ICBMs, submarine-launched SLBMs, and nuclear-capable bombers remains thoroughly intact. Indeed, it’s being updated and enhanced at mind-boggling expense (perhaps as high as a trillion dollars over the next three decades). The U.S. Navy? Still built around large, super-expensive, and vulnerableaircraft carrier task forces. The U.S. Air Force? Still pursuing new, ultra-high-tech strategic bombers and new, wildly expensive fighters and attack aircraft — first the F-22, now the F-35, both supremely disappointing. The U.S. Army? Still configured to fight large-scale, conventional battles, a surplus of M-1 Abrams tanks sitting in mothballs just in case they’re needed to plug the Fulda Gap in Germany against a raging Red Army. Except it’s 2015, not 1990, and no mass of Soviet T-72 tanks remains poised to surge through that gap.
[Along with the persistence of America’s “Cold War” military, a new military emerged, especially in the aftermath of 9-11.]
In 2015, so many of America’s “trigger-pullers” overseas are no longer, strictly speaking, professional military. They’re mercenaries, guns for hire, or CIA drone pilots (some on loan from the Air Force), or warrior corporations and intelligence contractors looking to get in on a piece of the action in a war on terror where progress is defined — official denials to the contrary — by body count, by the number of “enemy combatants” killed in drone or other strikes.
Indeed, the very persistence of traditional Cold War structures and postures within the “big” military has helped hide the full-scale emergence of a new and dangerous mutant version of our armed forces. A bewildering mish-mash of special ops, civilian contractors (both armed and unarmed), and CIA and other intelligence operatives, all plunged into a penumbra of secrecy, all largely hidden from view (even as they’re openly celebrated in various Hollywood action movies), this mutant military is forever clamoring for a greater piece of the action.
While the old-fashioned, uniformed military guards its Cold War turf, preserved like some set of monstrous museum exhibits, the mutant military strives with great success to expand its power across the globe. Since 9/11, it’s the mutant military that has gotten the lion’s share of the action and much of the adulation — here’s looking at you, SEAL Team 6 — along with its ultimate enabler, the civilian commander-in-chief, now acting in essence as America’s assassin-in-chief.
Think of it this way: a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military is completely uncontained.
[And an uncontained military, in a country that celebrates its troops as heroes, that boasts of itself as having the best military in all of recorded history, does not bode well for America’s democratic future.]
Dan White’s article on Admiral (retired) McRaven’s new job as Chancellor of the University of Texas system provides a warning that must be heeded. There is dangerous intent behind the appointment of military flag officers and national security operatives to leading public college and university leadership positions. The political elites, who usually appoint their like-minded allies to the governing boards of these institutions, see students in these public institutions of learning as potential activists against the status quo (as they were during the Vietnam War era). The governing boards usually vet the candidates for this office and thus want the candidate to mirror their own views of “national interests.” Those “interests” don’t include critical thinking or the idea of questioning authority.
Appointing a proven supporter (like McRaven) of the elites’ view of “national interest” in times like these, when their “interest” involves issues at variance with the common good, is looked at as a judicious decision. That means putting people into these offices who support the Patriot Act and its assault on citizens’ rights of free speech and assembly. It also means appointing people who support the government in its pursuit of perpetual war.
McRaven’s appointment to the University of Texas and the ridiculous appointment of Janet Napolitano, former head of the police state agency known as “Homeland Security,” as President of the university system of California are prime examples of this tendency. These selections show absolutely no interest in education but rather in administering and enforcing a sheep-like faculty and student body in these important institutions that otherwise could and should foster the serious questioning of our government and our oligarchical elites.
The elites know that stuffed shirts like McRaven and Napolitano can be counted on to foster bland conformity and blind compliance. That’s exactly why they’re hired for these offices. They work to ensure the subservience of higher education to the national security state. California and Texas are two of the biggest public university systems in the country. Is it any accident they are controlled by Napolitano and McRaven, both former operatives and enforcers in the national security state?
Not only does the national security state conspire to control higher education but national sports as well. Consider the recent revelation of Department of Defense payments to NFL teams for on-field ceremonies in honor of the troops. These ceremonies, used for recruitment and propaganda purposes, were meant to seem free and spontaneous on the part of the participating football teams, even as behind the scenes the Department of Defense was feeding the teams taxpayer money in the millions for these ceremonies. It’s all about extending the reach of the national security state into all realms of life, to include sports. That’s the real NFL scandal of today, not Tom Brady’s “Deflategate.”
Be afraid, America, as the national security state reaches out to control the message of higher education as well as professional sports. High culture, low culture, it doesn’t matter. The power elites want to control it all.
Awaken, patriotic American citizens, and resist. Don’t let the national security state’s tentacles reach into more and more aspects of your and your children’s lives.
Yes, I know Republican candidates for president are currently feeding “red meat” to the base, a base that consists of evangelical Christians who vote in the primaries come hell or high water. But the rhetoric used recently by Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee is more rancid than red meat. And it’s dangerous.
Jeb Bush is supposedly the more centrist candidate. Yet according to “centrist” Jeb, the federal government under Obama has adopted an “aggressive stance” against religious freedom. The solution for Bush is to revive the “Christian voice,” which he claims isn’t being heard enough in America.
So: to enhance religious freedom in America, we need to amplify the voices of Christians? Excuse me for seeing a slight contradiction here.
Mike Huckabee, of course, is a minister as well as a politician, so he is used to speaking with forked tongue. As he announced his candidacy, Huckabee claimed that Obama had not been active enough against Muslim jihadists. The answer, in his words, was simple:
“As president,” said Huckabee, “I promise you that we will no longer merely try to contain jihadism, we will conquer it!”
Super! The answer to Muslim extremism is a conquering crusade against it, led by a Baptist minister as president!
Did I just slip back 800 years into the past? Well, there’s nothing like a religious crusade to calm the waters of worldwide strife.
Few thinking Americans will be hornswoggled by such rhetorical nonsense (or so I hope). But rhetoric has a way of becoming reality.
Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, and all the other “committed” Christians in the Republican Party put me to mind of one of Christ’s teachings in the New Testament:
And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. (Matthew 6:5 KJV)
So I have a humble request to make, Republicans: Stop talking about religion on the street corner. Stop boasting about how you’re going to fight your own jihad. Start trying to live a truly moral life. You might start with humility and compassion, both becoming in a true candidate of the people.
And, if you please, stop scaring me.
Update (10:00PM): A reader sent me this image. It’s hilarious — and frightening.
In the movie Out of Africa, Meryl Streep (playing Karen Blixen, who used the pen name of Isak Dinesen) wistfully intones, “I had a farm in Africa.” It’s a considerable understatement given her character’s ambition and energy and drive. Rather than out of Africa, the U.S. military’s new motto is Into Africa, and like those cocky European colonialists of old, the military has plenty of ambition and energy and drive. So notes Nick Turse in his latest book, “Tomorrow’s Battlefield: US Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa.” Turse, the prize-winning author of “Kill Anything that Moves,” a searing examination of America’s war against Vietnam, turns his sharp eye to yet another misguided U.S. military adventure, this time within and across the continent of Africa. What he finds is disturbing.
The U.S. Army likes to talk about BLUF, or giving the bottom line up front, and Turse has a doozy on America’s militarized designs on Africa:
Over the course of the Obama presidency, American efforts on the [African] continent have become ever more militarized in terms of troops and bases, missions and money. And yet from Libya to the Gulf of Guinea, Mali to this camp in South Sudan, the results have been dismal. Countless military exercises, counterterrorism operations, humanitarian projects, and training missions, backed by billions of dollars of taxpayer money, have all evaporated in the face of coups, civil wars, human rights abuses, terror attacks, and poorly coordinated aid efforts. The human toll is incalculable. And there appears to be no end in sight.” (184)
A grim BLUF indeed. Perhaps that explains why the U.S. military is so reluctant to give Turse any information, even seemingly innocuous data such as the number of bases the U.S. has in Africa. Turse, who happily has a sense of humor, recounts tedious and frustrating battles with military public affairs officers as the latter employ various delaying tactics to stymie him. Indeed, if the U.S. military was as effective at winning wars as it is at fighting reporters, we might truly have a military that’s second to none. Turse perseveres through all this, relying on public sources, freedom of information requests, interviews, and other creative means to tease out the numerous ways AFRICOM is seeking to penetrate the continent.
(As an aside, it’s worth noting that reporters who pay fawning tribute to U.S. efforts in Africa are happily accommodated by military public affairs. Turse, an old-school investigative reporter who’s not into fawning, gets stonewalled, his reward for having integrity.)
Though AFRICOM is eager to deny or minimize its “footprint” in Africa to Turse, the story is different when the military talks among themselves. Turse begins by cleverly recounting a military change of command ceremony he attended in Germany in 2013. At that ceremony, speaking freely to one another, U.S. military commanders were not reticent at all. One military commander obsequiously praised his boss in these words: “General Linder has been saying, ‘Africa is the battlefield of tomorrow, today.’ And, sir, I couldn’t agree more. This new battlefield is custom made for SOC [the Special Operations community], and we’ll thrive in it. It’s exactly where we need to be today and I expect we’ll be for some time in the future.” (3)
Sir, I couldn’t agree more that Africa is already becoming a battlefield for U.S. special ops, now and in the future. And it’s “custom made” for us — we’re going to thrive there! Mark those words, America. We’ve heard their like before in the jungles of Vietnam in the early 1960s, when America’s fledgling special ops community boasted then that Vietnam was tailor made for the counterinsurgency skills of U.S. elite warriors. We were going to thrive there too. And look where that got us!
Turse’s knowledge of Vietnam makes him sensitive to the perils of mission creep in Africa, the problems of winning hearts and minds in cultures poorly understand by American troops, the dilemma of overthrowing less-than-tractable leaders (long ago, Diem in South Vietnam; more recently, Gaddafi in Libya) and the chaos that often results when the “bad man” is gone, the proliferation of U.S. weaponry that often accelerates regional violence, and so on. Rather than give an honest accounting of these difficulties, the U.S. military often prefers simply to declare victory, or at least to take credit for success, however partial or fleeting. Indeed, as Turse tartly observes, when it comes to Africa and America’s military missions there, “it’s so much easier to claim success than to achieve it.” (168)
For anyone interested in the U.S. military and especially AFRICOM, Turse’s honest, no-BS account makes for cautionary reading. It should be required reading for all U.S. military personnel assigned to Africa, who deserve to read honest criticism while being exposed to critical thinking. It’s a helluva lot better than hearing “I couldn’t agree more, sir.” And perhaps it’ll save the U.S. military from having to intone, tragically this time, “I had a base in Africa.”