Last night, as I was watching the PBS News Hour, I snapped to attention as I heard a new euphemism for murdered innocents from bombing: “civilian casualty incidents.”
A PBS reporter used it, unthinkingly I believe, repeating bureaucratic jargon about all the innocents in Yemen smashed to bits or shredded by “dumb” bombs, cluster munitions, and even “smart” bombs that are really only as smart as the pilots launching them (and the often imperfect “actionable intelligence” gathered to sanction them).
The overall tone of the PBS report was reassuring. General Mattis appeared to comfort Americans that the Saudis are doing better with bombing accuracy, and that America’s role in helping the Saudis is limited to aerial refueling and intelligence gathering about what not to hit. Of course, the Saudis can’t bomb without fuel, so the U.S. could easily stop aerial massacres if we wanted to, but the Saudis are our allies and they buy weapons in massive quantities from us, so forget about any real criticism here.
I’ve written about Orwellian euphemisms for murderous death before: “collateral damage” is often the go-to term for aerial attacks gone murderously wrong. To repeat myself: George Orwell famously noted the political uses of language and the insidiousness of euphemisms. Words about war matter. Dishonest words contribute to dishonest wars. They lead to death, dismemberment, and devastation. That’s not “collateral” — nor is it merely a “civilian casualty incident” — that’s a defining and terrifying reality.
What if innocent Americans were being killed? Would they be classified and covered as regrettable if inevitable “civilian casualty incidents”?
I’ve been seeing a lot of headlines, and reading quite a few tributes, about John McCain. A common word used to describe him is “warrior,” as in this op-ed at Al Jazeera of all places. If you do a quick Google search with “John McCain” and “warrior” you’ll see what I mean.
I’m a firm believer in the citizen-soldier tradition. Warrior-speak, I believe, is inappropriate to this tradition and to the ideals of a democracy. “Warrior” should not be used loosely as a substitute for “fighter,” nor should it replace citizen-sailor, which is what John McCain was (or should have been).
Yes, John McCain came from a family of admirals. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy. He became a naval aviator. He was shot down and became a prisoner of war. He showed toughness and fortitude and endurance as a POW under torture. But all this doesn’t (or shouldn’t) make him a “warrior.” Rather, he was a U.S. Navy officer, a product of a citizen-sailor tradition.
It’s corrosive to our democracy as well as to our military when we use “warrior” as a term of high praise. Many Americans apparently think “warrior” sounds cool and tough and manly, but there’s a thin line between “warrior” and “warmonger,” and both terms are corrosive to a country that claims it prefers peace to war.
In sum, it says something disturbing about our country and our culture when “warrior” has become the go-to term of ultimate praise. By anointing McCain as a “warrior,” we’re not praising him: we’re wounding our country.
News of the death of Senator John McCain from cancer has generated enormous sympathy and praise. When he ran for president in 2008, McCain was known as a “maverick” in the media, even though his views were rarely that far removed from traditional Republican orthodoxy. Maybe it was his style that won him that nickname. A former Navy fighter pilot and prisoner of war during the Vietnam war, McCain was less guarded than most politicians, and he courted the media with candor and humor (what a contrast to Donald Trump, who denounces the media as “the enemy of the people”).
Rolling the dice in the 2008 campaign, McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, a folksy governor from Alaska with virtually no experience in national or international politics. But what Palin had was strong populist instincts and a certain plain-speaking charisma. If McCain was the “maverick,” Palin was the “rogue” candidate. She helped to unleash a populist (anti-intellectual) fervor in the Republican party that culminated with Donald Trump.
I well remember the 2008 election. I was living in rural Pennsylvania and both vice-presidential candidates came for a visit. Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate, filled a high school gymnasium — roughly 600 people. Sarah Palin filled a minor league baseball stadium to overflowing — roughly 13,000 people.
Back then, Rebecca Traister wrote about Palin’s triumphal tour of rural Pennsylvania here. She also wrote about Palin’s rally at that minor league baseball stadium, Bowman Field. For some reason, the link to that article (which appeared originally at Salon.com) no longer works, but another blogger (“Lowell”) at Contextual Criticism cited portions of it back in early November 2008. Here’s how that blogger, quoting Traister, set the scene:
Palin is in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. It is a cold Thursday night. Thirteen thousand faithful, with “their Christian literature and thundersticks in tow,” have come to an outdoor baseball stadium to see the hockey mom from Alaska, the moose-slayer, the pit bull who ignites their basest instincts.
“Finally, about an hour before Palin’s scheduled arrival, Bowman Field kicked off its pre-party with the National Anthem sung under the giant flag suspended from a crane over the ‘Victory in Pennsylvania’ sign. A security sniper ogled the chilly crowd with his night-vision glasses, and a local minister took the stage to offer a benediction that hit the trifecta of guns, gays and abortion. The preacher asked forgiveness ‘for so many [who] have shed innocent blood through the course of abortions, and so many [who] would stop the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.’ With these abominations in mind, the preacher continued, ‘Thank you for raising up a woman like Gov. Sarah Palin at a time like this. Bless her for standing against those who would remove the guns from our cabinets, and those who would want to remove the baby from the womb of her mother. Bless her family as they adjust to changes in their lives that are going to be taking place on Tuesday.'”
Ms. Traister writes that “Palin was her down-home bestest, peppering her brief address with references to First Dude’s four snow-machine world championships, a lot of gratitude toward the veterans in the crowd, and a lot of folksy, g-droppin’ references to how ‘the time for choosin’s comin’ real soon,’ a golden-oldie reference to Ronald Reagan’s famous 1964 speech in support of Barry Goldwater. Combined with Palin’s repeated use of the phrases ‘You betcha!’ and ‘Drill, baby, drill!’ and her guess that the crowd was ‘so doggone proud’ of the Phillies, and her environmental justification that ‘God has so richly blessed this land with resources’ that [we] should probably strip-mine it, Palin seemed to be imitating Tina Fey’s imitation of her on ‘Saturday Night Live.'”
Toward the end, Palin invoked Reagan again, saying “In the end, what John McCain and I believe in is what Ronald Reagan believes in … we believe that America is still that shining City on a Hill that Ronald Reagan used to speak of.”
Now, lest you think Ms. Traister got out of that God-lovin’ bunch of folks without incident, think again. Here’s how she tells it:
“While I was interviewing some of the attendees, accompanied by another Salon staffer who was holding a video camera, a Palin fan in a newish silver sedan drove by and hit me hard in the back with the side mirror of the car, hard enough to bend the mirror back. Then the car drove off without anybody inside pausing to ask if I was all right. The middle-aged woman in the passenger seat, however, might have saluted me with an un-Christian hand gesture.”
Yes — that happened. Traister, a journalist, was hit “hard in the back” by a car, earning a middle-finger salute for her pains from one of the passengers. Talk about being anti-media! Small wonder that Trump’s diatribes resonate so well with “God-lovin'” people across the USA.
After the rallies in 2008, I asked my students (I was teaching college at the time) about them. They gushed about Palin. One of my students was especially taken by Palin’s husband, whom she considered to be a stud. None of my students had anything to say about the (much smaller and comparatively sedate) Biden rally.
Then and now, the mainstream media and the Democratic Party dismissed Palin as a joke, just as they initially dismissed Trump as a joke in 2015. Yet, as I wrote about Palin in 2010:
Much of what’s been said about Palin was also said of another backwoods American whose values were honed on the frontier: President Andrew Jackson. Palin may be no Jackson, but the liberal media’s sneering dismissal of her constitutes an indulgent, often self-congratulatory, narrative. It’s also a repudiation of our Jacksonian heritage of tough-minded, plain-speaking independence.
Like Jackson, Palin makes no pretense about being a cultivated American. Like it or not, she’s seen by her admirers as genuine precisely because she’s not a conflicted intellectual — precisely because she doesn’t confuse her followers by revealing a fourth side to every three-sided problem. Gosh darn it, she just loves God and loves America and loves our troops and loves her special baby and … well … that’s more than enough for her many admirers and followers.
Rural people in “fly-over” country are naturally suspicious of slick politicians who are both too smarmy and too clever for their own good. Palin is naturally “aw shucks” and seemingly content with her knowledge of the world. And, like Andrew Jackson before her, Palin is unapologetic, undeferential, and unabashedly proud to be an American. One simply can’t imagine her making a “patronizing apology tour” of European capitals, as President Obama was accused of doing by conservatives.
And which past president does Trump believe he’s most like? Andrew Jackson. Trump is, in a way, a male Palin with a lot more celebrity, lots more money, and scads of mendacity.
By selecting Palin as his running mate in 2008, McCain helped to open a door for future populists, a door Trump jumped through in 2015. It may not be McCain’s defining legacy, but it is, perhaps, his most negative.
Reference: See David Smith, “John McCain opened Pandora’s box – Sarah Palin came out, but Trump was right behind her. The senator regretted his choice of running mate. In 2008, no one could have imagined what it would mean,” at The Guardian, which got me thinking about this issue.
Watching a documentary commemorating the fiftieth anniversary year of Robert Kennedy’s (RFK) tragic run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, I couldn’t help thinking back to a venerable (if also somewhat moth-eaten) political science theory of critical realignment. This theory refers to a national election that radically and durably alters the balance of power in our two party system.
According to one iteration of that theory, these elections tend to occur on an approximately 36 year cycle of presidential elections and manifest in one of three ways: a new party displaces one of the two major parties (as when the Lincoln Republicans, calling for the containment of slavery, completed the dissolution of the Whig Party in 1860); a major party reinvigorates its dominance by mobilizing new and existing constituents around a fresh set of policy issues (as when the Republican Party ushered in a new period of electoral success with the 1896 election of the industrial protectionist McKinley); and when dominance switches between the two major parties (as when Franklin D. Roosevelt won overwhelmingly the first of his four presidential terms in 1932).
Key features of critical realignments include a crystallizing issue, heavy voter turnout, and major and durable shifts in voter allegiance. Political scientists have noted that this phenomenon seems to have petered out with the fracturing of FDR’s coalition in the Sixties. The election of 1968 did not see the emergence of a dominant new party (George Wallace’s success as a third party candidate that year was fleeting), nor did it witness either a renewal of Democratic dominance or a switch to long-term Republican Party dominance (control of the White House and Congress has instead oscillated between the two major parties).
Would the U.S. party system have experienced a critical realignment had Bobby Kennedy avoided assassination and won election as the thirty-seventh president of the United States? It is a question that occurred to me as I watched video footage taken from Kennedy’s funeral train of the people spontaneously gathered along the rail lines in big cities and small hamlets to pay last respects to their martyred candidate.
As one of the Kennedy family friends riding that train noted, those forlorn folks represented Kennedy’s base—Catholics, people of color, blue collar workers, the poor.
Had he lived and gone on to run in the general election, he would have added to these groups the students and liberals who had flocked to Senator Eugene McCarthy’s antiwar candidacy, as well as the party bosses who were supporting the sitting vice-president Hubert Humphrey. And had he won the presidency in 1968 and made significant progress in achieving his stated goals—ending US military involvement in Vietnam, retooling LBJ’s efforts at poverty reduction, fostering a sense of solidarity among racial and generational groups—would that have been enough durably to boost voter turnout and cement loyalty to a more social justice-oriented Democratic Party for decades?
A lot of “what ifs,” I know. But watching the stasis of American politics over the last decades in the face of mounting crises on both the domestic and international fronts, it is consoling to think of a possibility (however remote) of the critical realignment that could have been.
M. Davout, an occasional contributor to Bracing Views, teaches political science in the American South.
If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember environmental commercials featuring Woodsy the “anti-pollution owl” with the motto: “Give a hoot! Don’t pollute!”
Under the Trump administration, we need to modify that motto: “Don’t give a hoot. Pollute!”
That’s the message of Trump’s new plan for powerplant emissions. According to the EPA, this new plan may result in as many as 1,630 additional premature deaths annually by 2030, as reported by Bloomberg:
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says its proposal to relax greenhouse gas limits on power plants will cause as many as 1,630 additional premature deaths annually by 2030 from heart and lung disease — an estimate independent experts say may be low.
The projection is contained in a 289-page technical document accompanying the agency’s proposal to replace the Obama-era Clean Power Plan that was released Tuesday.
The new rule would give states more leeway to set limits on greenhouse gas emissions from their power sectors — even though, by the agency’s own admission, that will result in higher levels of particulate matter and ozone being emitted by coal plants than would have occurred under President Barack Obama’s plan. That pollution is linked with respiratory infections, asthma and impaired lung function.
As my wife pointed out to me, Trump & friends aren’t worried about smog and pollution and respiratory discomfort. They don’t live downwind from coal-fired plants. Trump can always escape to one of his many resorts and golf courses around the world.
How cynical and callous do you have to be to suggest changes to environmental regulations that you know will kill lots of Americans in the future?
Making America great again? No — It’s making America polluted again. Woodsy the Owl is not happy, America.
(For an extended essay on sports and the military, please see my latest at TomDispatch.com: “Why Can’t We Just Play Ball? The Militarization of Sports and the Redefinition of Patriotism,” August 19, 2018, http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/176459.)
There’s a lot of blurring and blending of sports with the military in the USA today, but my service branch, the U.S. Air Force, has taken it to a new level. The Falcons football team at the USAF Academy has issued a new “alternate” uniform in honor of air power and specifically the AC-130 gunship. What this means is that cadets can now wear helmets that feature spooky, grim-reaper-like images together with images of the AC-130 firing on some indistinct enemy below. Check it out above and below:
The fog and the shark-like tailfin in the background are nice touches. Somebody probably got a promotion and/or a commendation medal for putting this campaign together.
Of course, the Air Force celebrates flight, using falcons as the team mascot, which makes sense. But uniforms dedicated to and celebrating a specific weapon system — really? The AC-130 gunship rains death from the sky; it’s a nasty weapon system and certainly one that I’d want on my side in a shooting war. But putting it on football helmets with images of screaming skeletons is a bit much.
How did military academies like West Point and Annapolis play football for so long with just regular uniforms? Without images of tanks or battleships adorning their uniforms?
I know: I’m an old fuddy-duddy. This is the new military — the military of warriors and warfighters. These new uniforms: so cool! So sexy! Dealing death is so much fun!
Why is it that these new “alternate” football uniforms of the AF Academy remind me, not of our citizen-airmen force of the past, but of some sinister, darker, force of the future? Why does the Star Trek episode, “Mirror, Mirror,” come to mind? (Hint: We’re no longer the “good” Federation.)
(You can go to https://twitter.com/hashtag/LetsFly and watch an Air Force video that links AC-130 combat footage with the new uniform, complete with lusty music and stoked players.)
My wife recently said, “We Americans don’t do quiet,” which I thought was a great subject for a blog post. Then I remembered this article from two years ago. We are a noisy bunch, led by a president who’s constantly tweeting trash and shouting at various rallies. We’re so loud that it’s really hard to hear ourselves think. And maybe that’s the point. We’re not supposed to think anymore — or, we’re not encouraged to. “Make some noise” is a typical command issued to Americans, especially at sports stadiums. Promote yourself, we’re told, especially on social media. Put yourself out there. Be loud and be proud!
It’s truly hard to hear the tiny voice within when it’s being drowned out by all the loud voices without. Including our own.
People who don’t like noise get a bad rap in America. We once had neighbors in Colorado who used to ride off-road dirt bikes up and down the street. Someone complained about the noise and their response was, “Don’t like it? Move. This is America. We have freedom to make all the noise we want.”
Yesterday, my barber was talking about television. He was watching an “entertainment” show in which people were screaming, amplified by explosions, and he just couldn’t abide the noise. But he’s an old fuddy-duddy, like me, right?
When I watch baseball on TV, I keep the “mute” button very close by for the commercials. But even the commentators are getting noisy. Baseball used to be a fairly quiet game with two commentators in the booth, a play-by-play guy and a “color” guy (usually an ex-ballplayer). Now there are often…
A reader recently posed a simple question: If the U.S. military hasn’t won a war decisively since 1945, why do Americans continue to place so much faith in it and its leaders? I’ve tackled this issue before, but it got me to thinking again about the roots of military admiration — and adulation — within our society.
Here are a few reasons I came up with:
1. Although the U.S. military lost in Vietnam, stalemated in Korea, and got bogged down in seemingly endless wars recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t won victories in battles, such as Desert Storm in 1991 or the beginning of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Its defeats were not primarily the fault of the troops but of poor leadership at the top (both military and government). In other words, when Americans say they admire and trust the military, what they mean, perhaps, is they appreciate the spirit of service and sacrifice of the troops, while reserving judgment on presidents and generals.
2. Let’s not forget victory in the Cold War. The fall of the “Iron Curtain,” the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, the end of the Warsaw Pact — these were momentous events for the West.
3. The U.S. military may not win wars, but it does accomplish good things, e.g. rescue work, disaster relief, humanitarian missions. Critics often neglect these non-hostile missions.
4. Pro-military propaganda. There are many, many, examples of this, e.g. President Reagan and the myth of the noble cause in Vietnam, or presidents from Bush to Obama to Trump consistently praising the military as the finest fighting force in all of history. This is supported by Hollywood and TV. Think of all the movies and television shows that depict the military and war as ennobling and exciting and energizing.
5. The military-industrial complex and its power to control the narrative. The national security state has become a fourth branch of government with enormous influence and power in society. The mainstream media, for example, is dominated by pro-military talking heads, most of whom are retired colonels or generals.
6. Guilt. The U.S. military is “all volunteer.” The vast majority of Americans not only choose not to serve — they choose not to pay much attention. And I think many have some guilt for this, which they assuage with “support our troops” bumper stickers and other easy gestures of conformity.
7. Exposure to the military may be limited, but that doesn’t mean it’s not emotional. Indeed, when they think of the military, Americans may think of a son or daughter who serves, or granddad who served, or maybe that nice boy or girl down the street in uniform. They know nothing of the Pentagon, the military-industrial complex, war crimes, and so on.
8. For many Americans, the military is a point of pride. A symbol of strength but also a symbol of service and sacrifice.
My point is not to praise the military — it gets plenty of praise already, indeed, way too much praise, so much so that admiration becomes adulation. My intent here is rather to explicate some of the reasons why Americans continue to place so much confidence in the military, even when the results are disastrous.
One more thought: We live in a “selfie” society, a me-first culture. Whatever the military is, it’s not typically me-first. So when people say they respect or trust the military, perhaps they’re thinking of an organization that values teamwork — that puts the many before the few. In an America marked by divisiveness, it’s an ideal that resonates still.
Readers, what do you think?
Postscript: In my list above, I should have highlighted more strongly the role of lying by the military and government (think of the initial lies/reports about Pat Tillman’s death in Afghanistan, for example). I’m currently reading Sy Hersh’s new book, “Reporter.” Hersh’s accounts of systematic lying by the military and government during the Vietnam War are sober reminders to Americans. Yes, our government and military will often lie to us, sometimes for the most mundane reasons, but often to avoid accountability and to maintain control over the narrative.
When we think of the American press corps in the Vietnam War, names like Hersh and David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan come to mind, hardboiled reporters who sought the truth, no matter how shattering it proved to be. But these men, and reporters like Izzy Stone, were truly exceptional. Most reporters were more or less willing to repeat government and military explanations verbatim and without pushback. Hersh cites Arthur Sylvester, who served as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s senior press aide, as describing the Pentagon press corps as “shabby” and gullible. “Cover stories [lies],” Sylvester wrote, “go down smooth as cream [and for six years], when I thought they would cause a frightful gargle” among reporters.
So, even as the Pentagon fooled many reporters and most Americans about progress in and prospects of the war, they didn’t fool the North Vietnamese themselves, who decisively won the war. “There was no learning curve among the men in the Pentagon running the war,” Hersh concludes (p. 62). Perhaps all these men really learned was how to lie better in the future — and how to shift blame from themselves to the usual suspects (hippies, leftists, commies, anti-war protesters, and so on).