Declaring Independence from Walls, Weapons, and Wars

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My family’s old wringer-washer.  Look closely: as a kid, I stuck an American flag just above the “Maytag” label.

W.J. Astore

Walls and weapons and wars have come to define the USA in the 21st century.  The most infamous wall is Donald Trump’s proposed extension of the border wall with Mexico.  Weapons are everywhere, domestically with guns and mass shootings even as weapons sales overseas drive U.S. foreign policy.  Wars are simply endless in places that most Americans would struggle to identify on maps.  What percentage of Americans, for example, could identify Niger before the ambush that cost four Green Berets or Yemen before a Navy SEAL died there after Trump’s first military action (which he subsequently blamed on the generals)?  Indeed, how many Americans could identify these countries now, even with U.S. troops having died there, ostensibly in the name of fighting terrorism and keeping America safe?

I’m both a baby boomer and a retired military officer.  Looking back to the 20th century and in the context of the Cold War, when I thought of walls, images of Berlin came to mind, with desperate people risking life and limb to seek freedom in the West.  A wall was a symbol of them – you know, the Evil Empire, the Soviets, the Stasi, the freedom-deniers. The USA, land of liberty, neither needed nor wanted walls.  Weapons?  Sure, we had plenty of those when I was young, and sold lots of them too to countries overseas, when we weren’t using them ourselves to pummel Southeast Asia and other regions.  But military-style assault weapons for citizens were virtually unknown until the 1980s, and extensive weapons sales overseas had a purpose (at least in theory) of deterring communist expansion.  Nowadays, weapons sales need have no purpose other than profit for those who make and sell them.

And wars?  However evil the U.S. had acted during the Vietnam War, and indeed there’s much evil in policies that enjoin troops to “kill anything that moves,” as Nick Turse has documented in his book by that name, at least one thing can be said of that war: it ended, and America lost.  Even the Cold War ended (or so we believed, until recent claims that Russia and China represent the threats of the future).  Today, America’s wars never end.  Retired generals like David Petraeus spout gibberish about the wisdom of a “sustainable sustained commitment” to the war in Afghanistan, with the Pentagon babbling on about “long” and “generational” campaigns, as if prolonging wars for less-than-vital causes is a sign of U.S. strength.

The point is this: Walls were not us.  Weapons, however prevalent throughout U.S. history, were not treated as panaceas and sold as solutions to everything from classroom shootings to saving American jobs to boosting economic growth and cutting trade imbalances.  Even America’s wars were not open-ended or openly described as “generational.”  All of this is either new today or a twisted version of past policies and practices.

The Unmaking of American Idealism

As a teenager, I embraced American idealism.  The bicentennial was coming in 1976, and I was the proud owner of a reproduction of the Declaration of Independence.  It was on pseudo-parchment paper, a cheap copy for sure, but I treated it as if were precious because it was – and is.  It’s precious for the ideals it represents, the enshrinement of self-evident truths like life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, however imperfectly America upheld and advanced these in practice.

Maybe this is why I bought a roll of American flag stickers and stuck them on everything (including our kitchen door and our washing machine, which must have thrilled my parents).  Back then, I thought I knew what America stood for, or at least what my country stood against.  Despite all our sins, America was anti-wall, and even as we built and sold weapons and fought proxy wars in a contest with the Soviets, there was a sense America stood for freedom, or so I believed.  Meanwhile, in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam, we were also not as eager to fight wars everywhere and without end.

But that was then, and this is now.  Forget about the “Age of Aquarius,” a trippy song about peace and love that I remember singing when I was eight years old.  Today in America, it’s the Age of Mars, the Age of Walls and Weapons and War.

Coming of age in the 1970s, I heard and read a lot about war.  Vietnam had been a disaster, but there was always the example of World War II to set things right in my mind.  I could read about American heroism at Wake Island and during the Battle of the Bulge; I could watch movies like “Patton” that glorified tough-talking U.S. generals; I could look to my uncle who won a bronze star fighting at Guadalcanal in the Pacific.  I knew (or so I thought) that America stood for freedom and against tyranny.

But that ideal of freedom was always tinged by images of violent frontier justice, as depicted in popular culture.  Memorable movies of my teen years included Clint Eastwood playing a rogue cop in “Dirty Harry,” Charles Bronson playing a shattered vigilante in “Death Wish,” and John Wayne playing tough cop roles in movies like “McQ” and “Brannigan.”  These movies were clear about one thing: the rule of law wasn’t enough to keep us safe.  Sometimes, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, which usually involved Clint or Chuck or John (and, later, Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo) dispensing justice with fists and from the barrels of various (big) guns.

Extreme violence as well as images of the lone gunfighter were and are features of American history and culture, of course.  But these were counterbalanced in the 1960s and 1970s by peace anthems such as John Lennon’s “Imagine.”  A less known song, one I sang as a kid, was “Billy don’t be a hero” (how could I resist: It had my name in it).  In this song, young Billy wants to go off to war, but his fiancée discourages him.  Predictably, Billy goes anyway, the words of his fiancée following him (Billy don’t be a hero/don’t be a fool with your life).  Billy, after volunteering for a dangerous mission, dies a hero, the government sending a laudatory letter to his fiancée, who tearfully tosses it into the trash.

That song made an impression, though it didn’t stop me from joining the military.  Why?  Because I bought the narrative: the U.S. was fighting a war of survival against godless communism, showing patient resolve as we worked to contain a threat to freedom around the world.

That cold war ended more than 25 years ago, yet nevertheless the U.S. continues to build and sell more weapons than any other country; to support higher and higher military spending; and to wage more wars in more places than ever.  Clinton or Bush, Obama or Trump, the war song remains the same.  It all represents a narrowing of national horizons, a betrayal of American promise, one we’ll overcome only when we change course and reject walls and weapons and war.

Stopping Walls, Weapons, and Wars

There are two war parties in the U.S. today.  We call them Republicans and Democrats.  When it comes to fostering and feeding war, both are essentially the same.  Both are slaves to the national security state, even if Democrats make a show of rattling their chains a bit more.  Both define patriotism in militaristic terms and loyalty in terms of blanket support of, even reverence for, American military adventurism and interventionism.  Political candidates who have rival ideas, such as Libertarian Gary Johnson (remember him?) or Green Party candidate Jill Stein, are not even allowed on the stage.  Even when heard, they’re dismissed as jokes.

In 2016, for example, Johnson suggested cuts to military spending approaching 20%; Jill Stein suggested cuts as deep as 50%.  Their proposals, however, were simply rejected as preposterous by the mainstream media.  Even Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, refused to propose serious cuts to military spending: if he had, he knew he’d be dismissed as either a weak-kneed appeaser or an unserious ignoramus.  (Recall how Gary Johnson was depicted as clueless by the mainstream media because he couldn’t place Aleppo in Syria or instantly name a foreign leader he adored.)

Unmasked military authoritarianism is the new reality in U.S. government and society today, complete with a martial parade in Washington, D.C. come this November.  This is no surprise.  Recall how both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump boasted of how many generals and admirals supported them in their respective presidential campaigns, as if they couldn’t run for office unless they’d been anointed by men in military uniforms wearing stars.

And we dare call this a democracy?

Seeing the problem clearly is a way to begin to solve it.  Want to restore American liberty?  Stop building walls (and tearing children from parents).  Stop buying and selling massive amounts of weaponry here and everywhere.  And stop waging war across the globe. Americans used to know the chief result of divisive walls, proliferating weapons, and endless war is chaos everywhere and democracy nowhere.  How did we come to forget this lesson?

If we take these simple yet profound steps, I could look again at my childhood copy of the Declaration of Independence with a renewed sense of hope.

15 thoughts on “Declaring Independence from Walls, Weapons, and Wars

  1. I’m with you, down the line. And I’m a World War 2 survivor, a bit older than you, who opposed our entry to the war in Vietnam that killed so many American young men on the basis of a falsified justification.

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    1. Thank you. “Falsified justification” for war is a common theme, isn’t it? Just think of WMD and Iraq in 2002-3. Will we have another false narrative for war, perhaps with Iran in 2020?

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  2. As I read this article, it was hard to believe, but as we said in Nam – There it is. There it is in all it’s NEO-CON light and sound show. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jun/30/rudy-giuliani-mek-iran-paris-rally
    Excerpts:
    Rudy Giuliani calls for Iran regime change at rally linked to extremist group.
    Trump lawyer speaks at Paris event staged by MeK, once listed as terrorist organization.
    “We are now realistically being able to see an end to the regime in Iran,” Giuliani told a crowd of about 4,000, many of them refugees and young eastern Europeans who had been bussed in to attend the rally in return for a weekend trip to Paris.

    Giuliani is one of a long line of American conservative hawks to attend the NCRI annual conference. Another prominent guest on Saturday was Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker and a close Trump ally.

    Giuliani suggested that the current wave of protests in Iran was being orchestrated from outside.
    “Those protests are not happening spontaneously,” Giuliani said. “They are happening because of many of our people in Albania [which hosts an MeK compound] and many of our people here and throughout out the world.”

    The guest of honor at last year’s NCRI conference was John Bolton.

    Giuliani was one of 33 senior US officials and military brass at the year’s conference on Saturday. Bill Richardson, former US ambassador to the United Nations, US energy secretary and Democratic governor of New Mexico, was also in attendance.

    Stephen Harper, former prime minister of Canada, also delivered a speech advocating regime change in Iran.
    It was unclear if the speakers at the Saturday conference were paid. The NCRI and MeK have been known for paying very high fees. Most observers of Iranian politics say the MeK has minimal support in Iran and is widely hated for its use of violence and close links to Israeli intelligence.
    ==================================================================
    The Unmaking of American Idealism. Perhaps there never was American Idealism, except for the propaganda. America was a bully in Latin and South America in the 19th century, and we went world wide after WW 2. WW 2 was without a doubt a brutal affair, but we had a chance to be the shining light of liberty to the whole world after 1945, instead we quickly turned to the “Dark Side”.

    I may not be able to change much, but I want my 15 year old grandson to know the truth about America and not some Rambo crap. You know if America was a product on a Big Box store shelf, it would probably be pulled off, because of toxic chemicals.

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  3. I just finished an obscure, out of print book, “Hitler’s Rocket Sites” by Philip Henshall. After reading of all the engineering talent, dedication (and slave labor) that went into the V1 and V2 programs, I stopped to wonder – how is it that no matter how horrible the war project, across the world, regardless of the country, there is NEVER any shortage of people willing to sign up and serve, placing themselves totally under the command of whatever few people are at the top. Millions died for Hitler and millions more died because of Hitler’s decisions. Clearly, he had to be stopped by masses of men employed to do it. No such threat exists today.

    Recently I’ve watched Israeli soldiers sniping down unarmed Palestinians who pose absolutely no threat from hundreds of yards away: a turkey shoot at the same time the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem was being dedicated. It’s nothing but murder and the shooters are in many cases related to the victims of Hitler’s “Final Solution” that deliberately killed people.

    We talk about the ever increasing income inequality with more and more going to those at the top, yet what is war but the 99% willingly giving their lives for the 1%?

    You mention the ridicule heaped on Gary Johnson for his inability to locate Aleppo, but how many who sign up for service know the first thing about any foreign country, the foreign policy of the United States, or could even tell you what a neocon is?

    What madness it is. We now bribe people to serve (be all you can be – go Army!) luring people in with career promises in exchange for doing what they are told to do anywhere in the world at any time and all under a commander in chief who is as ignorant as can be on any number of topics, not the least being foreign affairs. He lies, he impulsively says something one day and reverses it the next. He is a clueless buffoon. What sane person would put his or her life under the command of Donald Trump?

    I would love to see Uncle Sam unable to conduct endless war for the lack of people willing to do the work that has nothing to do with defense and everything to do with holding distant posts of empire. It is the person on the bottom, in his and her thousands, who give themselves up to the projects of the power hungry and foolishly ignorant, be it a John Bolton or a Nikki Haley.

    Perhaps I am wrong, but I doubt there has been any change in enlistments under Trump.

    Man, the rational animal? Give me a break!

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    1. There are many reasons to join the military. I joined in part for the ROTC scholarship. But I also had a long interest in the military, and I saw service as a duty and a privilege. People enlist for all sorts of reasons, some selfish, some selfless. Reasons like money, health care, adventure, opportunity, an affinity for the military, family tradition, idealism, discipline, family or peer pressure, the list goes on. And more than a few people wanted to “even the score,” so to speak, to go overseas and kill bad guys, especially in the aftermath of 9/11. Also, since the military gets a lot of societal respect nowadays, young people see it as an attractive option.

      Whether you call it publicity or propaganda, there’s a lot of pro-military hype in American society today. Not just pro-military: pro-warrior. The military is seen as embodying American toughness, a sort of antidote to “political correctness” and a perceived feminization of our culture. A place where you can still be a “real man” and shout “kill!” without guilt.

      Of course, this all ducks the question of the purposes to which the military is put. These often have little to do with national defense.

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      1. Has anyone ever put together a study of what would actually be required to defend the US, while maintaining scale-up capabilities and some rapid deployment forces to back up our allies?
        If we were a sane nation, we’d take one look at the potential size of China’s future military and start negotiating bilateral arms control agreements, like, yesterday. Leverage reductions in the current US force structure in exchange for Chinese commitments to refrain from building a military capable of threatening us.
        Frankly, I think we ought to eliminate the active-duty components of the Army and Air Force, and drop the Navy to 6 carrier groups + Marine detachments.

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        1. I’m not aware of one. But that’s not what our Department of Defense is about, obviously. It’s not about defense: it’s about “full-spectrum dominance” on land and sea and in the air (and now we can add space as well as cyberspace). Every possible threat must be accounted for, which has the added benefit of driving the “defense” budget into the stratosphere.

          The U.S. military is truly about imperial power projection; perhaps the Klingon Empire provides a model? I know it’s “Star Trek,” but those Klingons were proud to be warriors as well.

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  4. The real trick is figuring out how to convince Americans of two basic facts. One: that a country of 325+ millions can’t be anything but diverse. Two, that a continent-spanning nation can’t be run efficiently from a capitol that is physically insulated from the rest of the country.
    Underpinning this entire crisis is the fact that D.C., as an imperial capitol, is a ridiculously valuable prize, and whatever coalition of interests controls it can deliver massive benefits to supporters. American idealism and belief in the superiority of our system is all well and good, except when faith in it keeps us from perceiving that we no longer have much effective control over the state (and the US state has now consumed the government).
    We’ve now devolved to a point where no major effective reform can make it through D.C. because any change threatens too many entrenched interests, who thanks to Citizens United can legally lobby and fund politicians to their heart’s content. Which turns the entire American system into a patronage-oriented, pay-to-play nightmare.
    D.C. itself has become the greatest threat to Americans – all Americans, whichever party is in power. I still believe that the only hope we have left of averting a catastrophe is using the Constitution to force reform on D.C. despite the politicians and parties. Fighting to control D.C. will destroy the nation in the end. Rebooting the thing is a much better option.
    But to get 2/3 of Americans behind a set of common reforms presents the greatest challenge of our times. Every power institution, from the politicians and parties to the lobbyists and the media, both totally invested in maintaining the present system, militates against fundamental reform. Hell, even suggesting such a thing gets you ignored by editors.
    Funny part is, when I talk to conservatives or liberals, both (at least among those under age 50 or so) agree that the system is broken. Most everyone wants the system to change. 1/3 of voters have given up on the system entirely. A viable 3rd party is achievable, given funds and a sane platform that can appeal to about half of disaffected voters and democrats and the 1/5 or so of republicans who remain sane.
    But what simple, popular platform and message could unite such disparate factions?

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    1. Andrew, I think it all boils down to money. We have to get big private money out of politics. When the 1% claims that wealth is just property and the progressive income tax is theft, it is necessary to say that great wealth is far more than property, it is power. Let Joe Billionaire have 10 mansions and private jets, that’s not a threat to we the people. It is the power he can buy with money that makes a mockery of democracy. Because people like to gamble, Sheldon Adelson, who is just one voter on election day like any other citizen, has a huge impact on our politics that puts the collective contributions of tens of thousands of citizens in the shade. Success in business/investing or mere inheritance should not confer political power through the ability to spend lavishly framing every issue, every political race as money wants it framed.

      Many states once had property qualifications for voting. We got rid of that for the obvious reason that it was unjust: we want all citizens regardless of what they own to vote. The ability to leverage wealth in politics, and at the same time keep it hidden is a gross violation of equal political rights that makes those old land-owning requirements laughable by comparison. I can speak to my neighbor or put comments like this one up on the Internet. The billionaire can use radio and TV networks, newspapers, billboards, endowed chairs at universities, “astroturf” groups, think tanks and on and on…yet he and I are said to be equals politically? We are said to equally possess freedom of speech?

      Our system is completely corrupt. Until we make political campaigns publicly funded the corruption will continue. This is clearly on display as money spent at every level of political office grows with each election while the Supreme Court rules corporations can jump in with both feet. Every powerful lobby loves it this way because it rigs the game their way. There is only one chance left for the U.S. The people must vote for public financing of campaigns even as all the power of the 1%, as well hidden as possible, tells us not to do so. Typically, 40% of eligible voters don’t vote, proof in itself of a decrepit, staggering democracy. I’m not optimistic.

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    2. Simple, popular platform: End war. Invest in (rebuild) America. Common wealth for the common health (health care for all). A government that gives Americans a hand up but not hand-outs. One person, one vote. Strength through education (free state college for those who qualify).

      And I’d add that money is not speech and never should be, i.e. campaign finance reform.

      I think that would be simple and popular.

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        1. I have a headline on my desk: “Good candidates won’t run because of what they must do to win.” That is a sad commentary on America.

          If I ever chose to run for anything other than dogcatcher, I’m sure my blogs and comments would be mined and misquoted to portray me as some kind of radical un-American libtard.

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  5. Albert Einstein is considered one of the brilliant minds of Science. So what is he doing commenting on economics and politics???

    May 1949 –
    “Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones.

    The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population.

    Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.” https://monthlyreview.org/2009/05/01/why-socialism/
    ==========================

    Einstein correctly observed the – “Private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature.” Einstein’s observation of political financing by private capitalists (the 1%) predated the tsunami of lobbyists, PAC’s and Super PAC’s we have today.

    His observation concerning the control of the sources of information is relevant today. The so called Cable News, FOX, MSDNC and CNN are all in the entertainment business. These “News Networks” operate on the basis of writing the ending of a story and then bringing out “expert analysts” to confirm their respective positions. Among the McMega-Media the third rail that cannot be touched is any critique of the Wall Street-Security-Military-Industrial Complex and it’s world wide aggression and failures.

    I did retain something my infantry training long ago in Fort Ord, CA, was the idea of presenting an interlocking defense toward the enemy. The Web of Militarism and Nationalism has it’s own interlocking defense of elected/selected political leaders, the McMega-Media and Wall Street. We have a separation of the voters from levers of political power.

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    1. Well put, ML.

      My students were often most concerned with the 2nd Amendment and gun rights. They cared little for the other amendments in the Bill of Rights. I had students who basically threw away the 4th Amendment when they argued in favor of government surveillance “to keep us safe” (the usual quote: “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide”).

      Personal autonomy, at least for some people, is now defined by the power of their guns, not their vote. Go figure.

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