I grew up during the Cold War when America’s rivalry with the Soviet Union posed a clear and present danger to our country’s very existence. Since the collapse of the USSR, or in other words the last 25 years, the U.S. has not faced an existential threat. Of course, the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were shocking and devastating, as were recent attacks in Paris and Brussels. But terrorism was and is nothing new. We faced it in the 1970s and 1980s, and indeed we will probably always face it. The question is how best to face it.
Stoking fear among the people is the wrong way to face it. Restricting liberty is the wrong way. An overly kinetic approach (i.e. lots of bombs and bullets) is the wrong way. Invading the Middle East (yet again) is the wrong way. Most of counter-terrorism, it seems to me, is an exercise in intelligence and policing (national and international). Yet we seem always to turn to our military to solve problems. The emphasis is relentlessly tactical/operational, stressing how many terrorists we kill in drone strikes and special ops raids (a version of the old “body count” from the Vietnam War era).
Military strikes and raids generate collateral damage and blowback, arguably creating more enemies than they kill. We’re helping to sustain a perpetual killing machine, a feedback loop. The more we “hit” various enemies while playing up the dangers of terrorism, especially in the media, the more they prosper in regards to attention (and recruits) they garner.
One of the first Rand primers I read as young Air Force lieutenant was “International Terrorism: The Other World War,” written by Brian M. Jenkins in 1985. Jenkins made many excellent points: that terrorists seek to instill fear, that their acts are mainly “aimed at the people watching,” that terrorism can’t be defeated like traditional (uniformed) enemies, that terrorists commit crimes for a larger political purpose (“causing widespread disorder, demoralizing society, and breaking down existing social and political order”), that terrorism is a form of political theater. As Jenkins notes:
“Terrorism attracts intense interest but produces little understanding. News coverage focuses on action not words. Terrorist incidents attract the media because they are genuine human dramas, different from ordinary murder and therefore newsworthy. “
Furthermore, “terrorists provide few lucrative targets for conventional military attack,” though this may be less true of state-sponsored terrorism.
What can we learn from Jenkins’s primer on terrorism? Three big lessons:
Deny the terrorists their victory by refusing to succumb to fear. In short, don’t panic. And don’t exaggerate the threat.
Don’t sensationalize the feats of terrorists in 24/7 media coverage of their attacks. That’s what the terrorists want. They want extensive media coverage, not only to shift public opinion and to spread fear, but also to recruit new members.
Finally, don’t change your way of life, your political system, your liberties, in response to terrorism. Abridging freedoms or marginalizing people (e.g. American Muslims) in the name of attacking terrorism is exactly what the terrorists want. They want to turn people against one another. To divide is to conquer.
The question is, when will Americans recognize the complexity of the terrorist threat while minimizing fear and over-reaction?
Terrorists need to be stopped, and that requires robust intelligence gathering, strong policing, and selective military action. But threat inflation, media hysteria, and militarized over-reaction simply play into the terrorists’ hands. Fear is the mind-killer, as Frank Herbert wrote. Let us always remember this as we face the terrorist threat with firmness and resolve.
Remember when Abraham Lincoln wrote about our government as being “of the people, by the people, for the people”? Even after 150 years, those words still resonate, but they are increasingly less true. Today, our government places itself above the people, and when the government is not working against the interests of (most of) the people, it acts as if the people’s interests are beside the point.
We’ve entered a new historical moment in America, which is precisely the point of Tom Engelhardt’s latest essay at TomDispatch.com. As Engelhardt notes, our electoral process is “part bread-and-circuses spectacle, part celebrity obsession, and part media money machine.” Our foreign policy, and increasingly our domestic policy as well, is dominated by the national security state, the one leviathan in our government that is never paralyzed. The political process itself is ever more divisive, polarized, and disconnected from the hardships faced by the working and middle classes. Even planetary dangers such as climate change are either denied or ignored, as if denial or ignorance will keep seas and temperatures from rising.
The very disconnection of our government from painful realities explains in part the appeal of “maverick” candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Yes, they are two very different men, but what they have in common is their willingness to take the side of ordinary Americans, who have seen their standard of living stagnate or drop over the last thirty years. Trump says he wants to make America great again: the implicit message is that we pretty much suck now, that we are a nation in decline, and that the sooner we admit it, the sooner we can take action to restore America to greatness. Sanders says he wants a future we can believe in, which is at its core much like Trump’s message. America has serious problems, both men are saying, but greatness is still within our grasp if only we act together as a people.
Again, much separates Trump and Sanders, yet both are willing to admit the times are bad for many hardworking Americans. What they’re saying is this: the American dream is increasingly a nightmare. And part of the nightmare is a government that doesn’t act in the people’s interests because it’s been co-opted by special interests. A government that can’t even do its job, such as to declare war or to advise on a Supreme Court nominee, in accordance with its Constitutional duties.
The promise and potential of our country remains. But that promise, that potential, is being squandered by an alliance of various interests that are no longer responsive to the people. If not dead, representative democracy in America is on life support. Unless we can reinvigorate it, as Engelhardt notes in his article, we will continue to suffer a decline analogous to the declines of other great empires (think Rome, for example). The difference today is the possibility of planetary-wide destruction, whether quickly from nuclear weapons or slowly from climate change.
Never was a revival in American democracy more urgently needed, not only for ourselves, but for the world.
In May 1968, nine Catholic activists set fire to draft records in Catonsville, Maryland, in a deliberate act of sabotage and protest against the Vietnam War. For the crime of destroying government property, a crime they freely admitted, they were tried in federal court in Baltimore and found guilty. I’ve been reading the edited trial transcript (with commentary) by Daniel Berrigan, one of the Catonsville Nine and a Catholic priest. What unified these nine people was their moral opposition to the Vietnam War, a moral revulsion to the acts their country was committing in Vietnam, a revulsion that drove them to burn draft records with a weak brew of homemade napalm so as to gain the attention of their fellow citizens.
On this Easter Weekend, I would like to focus on a few of the statements made by the Catonsville Nine, as recorded by Daniel Berrigan in “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine.”
Statement by Philip Berrigan
We have been accused of arrogance
But what of the fantastic arrogance … of our leaders
What of their crimes against the people … the poor and powerless
Still no court will try them … no jail will receive them
They live in righteousness … They will die in honor
For them we have one message … for those
in whose manicured hands … the power of the land lies
We say to them
Lead us … Lead us in justice
and there will be no need to break the law
Let the President do … what his predecessors failed to do
Let him obey the rich less … and the people more
Let him think less of the privileged
and more of the poor
Less of America and more of the world
Let lawmakers … judges … and lawyers
think less of the law … more of justice
less of legal ritual … more of human rights …
Statement by Thomas Lewis
We were speaking as Americans
We were proud to be Americans
Yet we have representatives in Vietnam
who do terrible things in our name
We were saying to the military
This is wrong … This is immoral … This is illegal
And their response to this was
they were only obeying orders
Question from the Judge: But they did respond to you, did they not?
Thomas Lewis: It was an atrocious response.
Statement by Marjorie Melville
I know that burning draft files
is not an effective way
to stop a war … but
who has found a way
of stopping this war
I have racked my brain
I have talked to all kinds of people
What can you do
They say yes … yes
But there is no answer
no stopping it
the horror continues
Statement by Thomas Melville
I hear our president … confuse greatness with strength
riches with goodness … fear with respect
hopelessness and passivity with peace
The clichés of our leaders
pay tribute to property … and indifference to suffering
We long for a hand of friendship and succor
and that hand
clenches into a fist
I wonder how long we can endure
Statement by George Mische
We were not out to destroy life
There is a higher law we are commanded to obey
It takes precedence over human laws
My intent was to follow the higher law
My intent was to save lives … Vietnamese lives
North and South American lives
To stop the madness
That was the intent
Statement of Daniel Berrigan
Question from the Judge: You say your intention was to save these children, of the jury, of myself, when you burned the [draft] records? That is what I heard you say. I ask if you meant that.
I meant that
of course I mean that
or I would not say it
The great sinfulness
of modern war is
that it renders concrete things abstract
I do not want to talk
about Americans in general ….
I poured napalm [on the draft records]
on behalf of the prosecutor’s
and the jury’s children
Closing Statement by Daniel Berrigan
When at what point will you say no to this war?
We have chosen to say
with the gift of our liberty
if necessary our lives:
the violence stops here
the death stops here
the suppression of truth stops here
this war stops here
Redeem the times!
The times are inexpressibly evil
Christians pay conscious … indeed religious tribute
to Caesar and Mars
by the approval of overkill tactics … by brinksmanship
by nuclear liturgies … by racism … by support of genocide
They embrace their society with all their heart
and abandon the cross
They pay lip service to Christ
and military service to the powers of death
And yet … and yet … the times are inexhaustibly good
solaced by the courage and hope of many
The truth rules … Christ is not forsaken …
At the end of the trial, as all nine defendants were found guilty, a “member of the audience” cried, “Members of the jury, you have just found Jesus Christ guilty.”
That last statement, and the words of the Catonsville Nine, give us much to ponder on this Easter Weekend.
A reader wrote to ask my opinion on which presidential candidate would make the best commander-in-chief. This is a speculative exercise, of course, but why not speculate? I’ve watched most of the debates and have a sense of the candidates, though of course I’ve never met them and have no direct experience with them. (I once shook President Bill Clinton’s hand, and saw Hillary in the background, but that’s a story for another day.) So let’s take the five remaining candidates in alphabetical order:
Hillary Clinton: Often wrong and too hawkish, which is a bad combination. She was wrong on the Iraq War, wrong on Libya, and unapologetic in her fondness for Henry Kissinger. Under Clinton, I see more wasteful military interventions.
Ted Cruz: Far too eager to use military force. You’ll recall his posturing about “carpet bombing” and making the sand “glow” in the Middle East, apparently by using nuclear weapons. The recent terrorist attacks in Belgium have him calling for a police state in U.S. neighborhoods where Muslim-Americans live.
John Kasich: Has experience working military matters while in Congress (18 years on the House Armed Services Committee). Has executive experience as a governor. Has had the temerity to criticize the Saudis for supporting radical elements in Islam. Has opposed wasteful weapons systems (the B-2 and A-12, for example). Speaks carefully and appears to be temperamentally suited to the job.
Bernie Sanders: He was right to oppose the Iraq War. Thinks for himself. Not a slave to neoconservative interventionism. Yet he lacks experience dealing with the military and with foreign policy. Has the capacity for growth.
Donald Trump: Lacks an understanding of the U.S. Constitution and his role and responsibilities as commander-in-chief. Though he has shown a willingness to depart from orthodoxies, e.g. by criticizing the Iraq War and the idea of nation-building, Trump’s temperament is highly suspect. His bombast amplified by his ignorance could make for a deadly combination. Hysterical calls for medieval-like torture practices are especially disturbing.
Of the five major candidates, and with Sanders somewhat of a blank slate, I think John Kasich has the best potential — in the short-term — to be an effective commander-in-chief. This does not mean that I support Kasich for president, for I object to several of his domestic policies.
Not exactly a “bracing view,” perhaps, but it’s my honest attempt to answer a reader’s question. I do think Sanders has considerable potential to be an excellent commander-in-chief because he possesses moral courage.
Sadly, the odds of either Kasich or Sanders winning in November seem very long indeed.
In October 2005, during the Iraq War, historian David M. Kennedy noted that “No American is now obligated to military service, few will ever serve in uniform, even fewer will actually taste battle …. Americans with no risk whatsoever of exposure to military service have, in effect, hired some of the least advantaged of their fellow countrymen to do some of their most dangerous business while the majority goes on with their own affairs unbloodied and undistracted.”
We have, in essence, a post-democratic military in the U.S. today, which is the subject of my latest article for TomDispatch.com. You can read the entire article here; what follows is the first section on how our citizen-soldier tradition morphed into a professional force of volunteer-warriors augmented by privatized forces of mercenaries and corporations.
In the decades since the draft ended in 1973, a strange new military has emerged in the United States. Think of it, if you will, as a post-democratic force that prides itself on its warrior ethos rather than the old-fashioned citizen-soldier ideal. As such, it’s a military increasingly divorced from the people, with a way of life ever more foreign to most Americans (adulatory as they may feel toward its troops). Abroad, it’s now regularly put to purposes foreign to any traditional idea of national defense. In Washington, it has become a force unto itself, following its own priorities, pursuing its own agendas, increasingly unaccountable to either the president or Congress.
Three areas highlight the post-democratic transformation of this military with striking clarity: the blending of military professionals with privatized mercenaries in prosecuting unending “limited” wars; the way senior military commanders are cashing in on retirement; and finally the emergence of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) as a quasi-missionary imperial force with a presence in at least 135 countries a year (and counting).
The All-Volunteer Military and Mercenaries: An Undemocratic Amalgam
I’m a product of the all-volunteer military. In 1973, the Nixon administration ended the draft, which also marked the end of a citizen-soldier tradition that had served the nation for two centuries. At the time, neither the top brass nor the president wanted to face a future in which, in the style of the Vietnam era just then winding up, a force of citizen-soldiers could vote with their feet and their mouths in the kinds of protest that had only recently left the Army in significant disarray. The new military was to be all volunteers and a thoroughly professional force. (Think: no dissenters, no protesters, no antiwar sentiments; in short, no repeats of what had just happened.) And so it has remained for more than 40 years.
Most Americans were happy to see the draft abolished. (Although young men still register for selective service at age 18, there are neither popular calls for its return, nor serious plans to revive it.) Yet its end was not celebrated by all. At the time, some military men advised against it, convinced that what, in fact, did happen would happen: that an all-volunteer force would become more prone to military adventurism enabled by civilian leaders who no longer had to consider the sort of opposition draft call-ups might create for undeclared and unpopular wars.
In 1982, historian Joseph Ellis summed up such sentiments in a prophetic passage in an essay titled “Learning Military Lessons from Vietnam” (from the book Men at War):
“[V]irtually all studies of the all-volunteer army have indicated that it is likely to be less representative of and responsive to popular opinion, more expensive, more jealous of its own prerogatives, more xenophobic — in other words, more likely to repeat some of the most grievous mistakes of Vietnam … Perhaps the most worrisome feature of the all-volunteer army is that it encourages soldiers to insulate themselves from civilian society and allows them to cling tenaciously to outmoded visions of the profession of arms. It certainly puts an increased burden of responsibility on civilian officials to impose restraints on military operations, restraints which the soldiers will surely perceive as unjustified.”
Ellis wrote this more than 30 years ago — before Desert Storm, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, or the launching of the War on Terror. These wars (and other U.S. military interventions of the last decades) have provided vivid evidence that civilian officials have felt emboldened in wielding a military freed from the constraints of the old citizen army. Indeed, it says something of our twenty-first-century moment that military officers have from time to time felt the need to restrain civilian officials rather than vice versa. Consider, for instance, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki’s warning early in 2003 that a post-invasion Iraq would need to be occupied by “several hundred thousand” troops. Shinseki clearly hoped that his (all-too-realistic) estimate would tamp down the heady optimism of top Bush administration officials that any such war would be a “cakewalk,” that the Iraqis would strew “bouquets” of flowers in the path of the invaders, and that the U.S. would be able to garrison an American-style Iraq in the fashion of South Korea until hell froze over. Prophetic Shinseki was, but not successful. His advice was dismissed out of hand, as was he.
Events since Desert Storm in 1991 suggest that the all-volunteer military has been more curse than blessing. Partially to blame: a new dynamic in modern American history, the creation of a massive military force that is not of the people, by the people, or for the people. It is, of course, a dynamic hardly new to history. Writing in the eighteenth century about the decline and fall of Rome, the historian Edward Gibbon noted that:
“In the purer ages of the commonwealth [of Rome], the use of arms was reserved for those ranks of citizens who had a country to love, a property to defend, and some share in enacting those laws, which it was their interest, as well as duty, to maintain. But in proportion as the public freedom was lost in extent of conquest, war was gradually improved into an art, and degraded into a trade.”
As the U.S. has become more authoritarian and more expansive, its military has come to serve the needs of others, among them elites driven by dreams of profit and power. Some will argue that this is nothing new. I’ve read my Smedley Butler and I’m well aware that historically the U.S. military was often used in un-democratic ways to protect and advance various business interests. In General Butler’s day, however, that military was a small quasi-professional force with a limited reach. Today’s version is enormous, garrisoning roughly 800 foreign bases across the globe, capable of sending its Hellfire missile-armed drones on killing missions into country after country across the Greater Middle East and Africa, and possessing a vision of what it likes to call “full-spectrum dominance” meant to facilitate “global reach, global power.” In sum, the U.S. military is far more powerful, far less accountable — and far more dangerous.
As a post-democratic military has arisen in this country, so have a set of “warrior corporations” — that is, private, for-profit mercenary outfits that now regularly accompany American forces in essentially equal numbers into any war zone. In the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Blackwater was the most notorious of these, but other mercenary outfits like Triple Canopy and DynCorp were also deeply involved. This rise of privatized militaries and mercenaries naturally contributes to actions that are inherently un-democratic and divorced from the will and wishes of the people. It is also inherently a less accountable form of war, since no one even bothers to count the for-profit dead, nor do their bodies come home in flag-draped coffins for solemn burial in military cemeteries; and Americans don’t approach such mercenaries to thank them for their service. All of which allows for the further development of a significantly under-the-radar form of war making.
The phrase “limited war,” applied to European conflicts from the close of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 to the French Revolution in 1789, and later to conventional wars in the nuclear age, has fresh meaning in twenty-first-century America. These days, the limits of limited war, such as they are, fall less on the warriors and more on the American people who are increasingly cut out of the process. They are, for instance, purposely never mobilized for battle, but encouraged to act as though they were living in a war-less land. American war efforts, which invariably take place in distant lands, are not supposed to interfere with business as usual in the “homeland,” which, of course, means consumerism and consumption. You will find no rationing in today’s America, nor calls for common sacrifice of any sort. If anything, wars have simply become another consumable item on the American menu. They consume fuel and resources, money, and intellect, all in staggering amounts. In a sense, they are themselves a for-profit consumable, often with tie-ins to video games, movies, and other forms of entertainment.
In the rush for money and in the name of patriotism, the horrors of wars, faced squarely by many Americans in the Vietnam War era, are now largely disregarded. One question that this election season has raised: What if our post-democratic military is driven by an autocrat who insists that it must obey his whims in the cause of “making America great again”?
U.S. military intervention in Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein led to the creation of ISIS. Military intervention in Libya and the overthrow of Gaddafi led to chaos and the spread of ISIS to the region. U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan, which initially dislocated the Taliban, has enabled the return of the Taliban to dominance. Why is this? Partly because the U.S. does not understand the ecology of war. The U.S. sees war as a great simplifier, but events prove that war usually generates complexity and chaos. The U.S. also thinks in the short-term, rarely considering the long-term impacts of military action. These are lessons I attempted to grapple with in this article on Charles Darwin’s ideas about the state of nature and its complexity when it experiences hammer blows of change. This complexity is something that U.S. politicians rarely discuss when they talk about war. The rhetoric of people like Trump, Cruz, and Clinton promotes a bigger, stronger, more aggressive and more violent military. Juvenile thinking about war leads to quagmires and disaster, a price America seems willing to pay as long as war remains far from its shores. But for how much longer? How long before the hammer blows of war ripple across the face of nature to disrupt democracy in America? Indeed, these ripples are already striking home, strengthening militarism in the USA and silencing serious talk of pursuing less violent courses in the world.
America’s thinking about military action is impoverished. The U.S. military speaks of precision munitions and surgical strikes, suggesting a process that is controllable and predictable. Experts cite Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz for his axiom that war is a continuation of political discourse with the admixture of violent means. Here, military action is normalized as an extreme form of politics, suggesting again a measure of controllability and predictability.
But what if war is almost entirely imprecise and unpredictable? What if military action and its impacts are often wildly out of line with what the “experts” anticipate? In fact, this is precisely what military history shows, time and time again, to include recent U.S. military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
U.S. military action essentially acts like hammer blows that upset the state of nature within the complex ecologies of societies like…
Last night’s primary results suggest it’s Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump come this fall. What does this mean for America?
Hillary is the easiest to gauge. She’s been in politics for a long time and possesses a lengthy and controversial record. She is of course a transformative candidate, the first female candidate for president from a major party. That’s where the revolution begins — and ends. Hillary is a pragmatist who promises a continuation of Obama’s policies. Even more so than Obama, she is an establishment candidate, well ensconced among Wall Street financiers, K Street lobbyists, and all the other special interests that rule America today through money and power. If this were 1976, you could well imagine her running as a moderate Republican against a Democratic candidate like Jimmy Carter (or Bernie Sanders). With respect to foreign policy, she promises a hard line and the continuation of perpetual wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
Many liberal Democrats, and more than a few Republicans, will likely vote for her with noses held and fingers crossed. Mainline Democrats will vote for her based on certain issues, such as Supreme Court vacancies, her pro-choice stance on abortion, and so on. In a normal election year, an establishment Republican would have a good shot at beating her since Hillary’s negatives are so high. But this is not a normal year.
Enter Donald Trump. If Hillary promises more of the same, Trump promises unpredictability. His simplistic rhetoric about making America great again has obviously resonated, just as Obama’s similarly simplistic message of “hope” and “change” did in 2008. Trump is a man of (certain) people: unlike Hillary, he’s not a career politician. Unlike Hillary, he’s not tied to the political establishment. In essence, he’s part wild card, part joker, and his outlandish statements on Muslims and Mexicans and walls and women suggest he’s not playing with a full deck.
No one really knows what a Trump presidency would look like. I don’t think even Trump knows. Trump has a habit of speaking off the cuff, of making statements that are more than a little grandiose, partly because he loves to grandstand. He’s easy to dismiss — all too easy — yet look where he is now, closing in on the Republican nomination despite long odds.
Trump, as I wrote back in July 2015, likes to pose as a proto-fascist. He likes to boast that the military will follow his orders even if they’re illegal. (He backed off that statement, but the fact he made it speaks loudly about his judgement.) On occasion he says something insightful and honest, as when he insisted the Iraq war was a mistake, costing the nation trillions of dollars, or when he attacks poorly negotiated trade deals as hurting working-class Americans. But with the good comes lots of bad.
A big challenge for Trump this fall will be appearing presidential. So far his policy knowledge in debates has been a mile wide and an inch deep. He’s gotten away with this because of the size of the Republican field, but Hillary, the consummate policy wonk, will make mincemeat of him in the fall debates if he continues to speak off the cuff and glide over specifics.
Clinton versus Trump: it’s a grim choice for America. An establishment oligarch versus a quixotic autocrat. More of the same versus God knows what. What they collectively represent is both the decline of progressivism and of conservatism in America.
For now I’m putting my crystal ball aside, except to say that one day (perhaps very soon) Americans may look back with fondness on the eight years Obama was president.