A Few Observations on War, Sports, Fortresses, America, and Life

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America the beautiful?  Yes, that’s a stealth bomber designed for nuclear attack cruising over a football stadium, because America!

W.J. Astore

It’s a new year!  And as we adjust to 2019, I thought I’d share a few random observations (hopefully of some import).

“Retirement”: Many Americans fear the concept of retirement.  Part of the challenge is coming to grips with the word.  In America, your identity often hinges on your title, your job, and your paycheck.  Since retiring from teaching (after retiring from the military), I’m still mentally adjusting to not having a fixed schedule, to not having expectations on the job that have to be met. I’ve never been an especially driven person but I’ve always sought to do well. Now I have to do well on terms defined by me. It’s a mental adjustment.

One thing is certain: society is always trying to pigeonhole us.  When I tell people I’m “retired,” the immediate response is “You’re too young” or “But what do you do?” said in an incredulous voice.  To avoid this problem, sometimes I tell people I’m a writer or a historian, both true, though I currently have no salaried position as such.  To state the obvious, American culture is job-centered. Look at our health care: lose your job, lose your health insurance. So much of our identity, as well as our ability to navigate American society, is based on our jobs.

People find meaning in work.  But inspiration can be found elsewhere.  Find something of value to you that’s inspiring and I don’t think you’ll ever be “retired.”

“A man’s home is his castle”: Is it good that men are encouraged to think of their homes as their castles?  For what are castles but fortresses? And fortresses need defending, with guns and security alarms and fences and all the rest.  And if a man is Lord of his Castle, then everyone else is his subject, including his wife and children. Perhaps especially his wife and children.  We need to think of home as home, not as a castle, not as a fortress in which a man fortifies and actuates his own fears and aggression.  (This observation was inspired by an article on male violence in the home.)

On Mourning America’s War Dead: A subject worthy of discussion is how we mourn our troops. When flag-draped caskets return to American soil, our troops are honored. But they are mourned mainly within family settings, or among neighbors in close-knit communities. Rarely are they mourned within wider communal settings. And I sense that some families are torn: there is little serenity for them, not only because they lost a loved one, but because there is a sense, a suspicion, that loved ones died for lesser causes, causes unrelated to ideals held sacred.

Of course, a soldier never dies in vain when he dies for his fellow troops. But that can be said of all soldiers on all sides in all wars. In a republic like the USA, or a polis as in ancient Greece, soldiers are supposed to die for something greater than the unit. That larger purpose is a communal ideal. Call it truth, justice, and the American way. Or call it something else, a sense of rightness if not righteousness.

But where is the rightness in America’s wars today?

On America’s Standing Military and Congressional Authority:  The nation’s founders knew there’d be national emergencies that would require a larger “standing” military (i.e., not just state militias of “minutemen”), but they wanted to prevent a state of permanent war, which they attempted to do with the two-year appropriation clause. They were well familiar with history and all those hundred years’, thirty years’, and seven years’, wars.  By giving the people (Congress) the power of the purse, they hoped to prevent those long wars by cutting off open-ended funding.

Of course, today that doesn’t apply.  The AUMF (authorization for the use of military force) that dates from 2001 is used to justify a state of perpetual war and the funding of the same.  Congress has abnegated its responsibility to check overweening Executive power for war-making, but actually it’s worse than that: Congress has joined the Executive branch in pursuing perpetual war. We no longer even bother with formal Congressional declarations; permanent war is considered to be the new normal in America: business as usual.

Not only have we created a permanent standing military — we devote the lion’s share of federal resources to it and brag about how great it is.  That reality is antithetical to our national ideals as imagined and articulated by this nation’s founders.

Sports, Movies, and the Military in America:  There’s a tendency for people to dismiss sports as “just sports” or movies as “just movies.” Yet astute people recognize the power of both. The classic case is Nazi Germany and the 1936 Olympics, and of course Leni Riefenstahl and spectacles like “The Triumph of the Will.” These, of course, were blatant, in-your-face, rallies. Today, U.S. sports/military celebrations may not be as blatant, but sports connects powerfully to feel-good patriotism as fanatical boosterism, which is precisely why the military is so eager to appropriate sports imagery (and to infiltrate sporting events). The corporate sponsors see it as a win-win: a win for profits, and a win for their image as “patriots.”

Hollywood is the dream factory. Sports too has a strong fantasy element. Speaking as an American male, who hasn’t dreamed of hitting the big home run like Big Papi or pitching a no-hitter like Matt Scherzer?

Man does not live by bread alone; to a certain extent, we live by dreams. Through our aspirations. And our dreams and aspirations are being channeled along certain lines: along more military lines, both at and by sporting events as well as at the movie theater.

It’s not just crass commercialism. It’s about shaping dreams, defining what’s appropriate (and what isn’t).

Thank you for indulging me as I cram into this article a few observations I’ve been kicking around.  I’d also like as ever to thank all my readers and especially my faithful commenters and correspondents.  Fire away in the comments section, readers!

16 thoughts on “A Few Observations on War, Sports, Fortresses, America, and Life

  1. Good commentary, as a recently “retired” union member – I agree it is just a new stage- between childcare for the grandkids, dinners for friends and extended family and labor support it is busy and interesting. Look forward to your new posts this new year!

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  2. Congress has essentially went AWOL, since the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. They have handed off enormous power to all the Presidents since Bush the Elder. If the President wants to send troops to Screwupistan, no Congressional Hearings of any value will be held.

    I would add the lack of a viable Fourth Estate. From another Blog Site: “We saw these Retrospectives in waves in 2005 and 2006 as the George Wills of the world wondered aloud How We Got Iraq So Wrong. Then, as now, the answer is very simple: You got it wrong because you willfully ignored all of the disconfirming evidence in order to reach your predetermined conclusion.”

    So often the Cable News Networks and the McMega-Media in general subscribe to the “predetermined conclusion”. The McMega-Media engages in their own confirmation bias all the time. The same pundits anchor these segments and they bring on a series of “experts” to reach their predetermined conclusions. This why a Noam Chomsky, Cornell West or a Chris Hedges will not be invited on Cable News. Howard Zinn was also censored by the McMega-Media, while he was alive.

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  3. It’s always a pleasure to hear the thoughts of an intelligent person.

    Regarding retirement, I often say I was born to be retired as I don’t believe I’ve ever been bored when on my own time. I was fortunate in being able to turn down overtime, in fact it was easy because there were so many people eager to take it. It was remarkable to me when I was working that others expressed anxiety about retirement, not knowing how they would fill the time or being home with the spouse all the time. It seems that even the lowliest jobs are preferred to being on one’s own. Why is it we don’t know what to do with ourselves?

    The other thing about work was it seemed everyone was living over his or her head. It was a union job that paid very well yet when at one point there was a lockout by the company, some people were desperate after only two weeks without a paycheck. I think the true American way is to live way beyond one’s means and the banks are only to happy to provide the loans to do it. They have tremendous power and we voluntarily give it to them.

    With the unprecedented levels of debt everywhere from the federal gov’t through the states and cities right down to individuals, there has to be some kind of reset coming. Traditionally in the old world there was debt forgiveness on a periodic basis otherwise those owing could never get out from under. Creditors would never consider that now, but the problem remains.

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    1. That’s a great point about people living beyond their means. Retirement becomes a distant dream when you’re forever in debt. Also, for many people, health insurance is linked to your job, so if you retire early, you may lose your health insurance. Then you have to “buy” it on the private “market,” which could cost $10K or more, depending on your age and circumstances.

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      1. As a Boomer when I started my working career large companies offered a company sponsored retirement plan. Some large large companies found a way to off load those responsibilities by declaring bankruptcy on to the Federal Government (My wife’s employer did this). Also in my working career I lived through all the downsizing and right sizing when employees were terminated. Of course these employees lost their company health insurance.

        Another factor is how well you are paid during your working career, you may have a job but, find yourself with little disposable income to save for retirement. Then Medicare must be filled in by various insurance plans.

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        1. There’s no way I could be “retired,” ML, without the safety of a military pension and subsidized health insurance. But, as you know, most companies have gotten rid of pensions and health care plans, and in fact the government is chipping away at benefits for military retirees. Meanwhile, as my dad said long ago, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

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    2. Ah, and there’s the virus of Neoliberal ideology – economists of that bent will swear up and down (and unfortunately, like Krugman, they get all the media airtime) that debt forgiveness is a bad thing because of moral hazard – if people expect forgiveness, they demand more debt.

      Like with a lot of Econ arguments – there’s a germ of truth, that rarely applies in reality. Most Americans have debt because they have no other option. Wages are too low for non-professionals, while prices are impacted by demand from people with plenty of $ to spend – hence the ridiculously high price of electronics and the stupid-high profit margins of Google and Apple. Gadgets that our society demands all people have and actively use.

      The simpler truth is that debt is a nominal thing, created by lender and lendee making bets about their future income. Periodic ‘Jubilee’-type events are a means of redressing the political imbalance that always occurs between the few lenders and many lendees. It’s always easier for a wealthy and small interest group to advance their policy preferences compared to a mass of the poor and indebted.

      Like most things, debt is a social construct, only partly reflecting economic realities. But the Neoliberals present it as an essential thing, important in and of itself, that must be respected – exactly the sort of argument bankers love.

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  4. Maaaybe I’ll get to experience this thing called ‘retirement’ some day, but at 35 I sincerely doubt – unless/until something changes dramatically for the better in the USA political-economy – it will ever be an option for the majority of my generation.

    Of course, I’m from a classic downwardly-mobile rural white middle class background, where all the scanty capital accumulated by my family in the 20th century was destroyed by the neoliberal economy. I’ll be paying off student loans until I’m in my 50s, though my wife and I are fortunate in that we snapped up a home as soon as we could afford a mortgage about ten years back, and Cascadia is growing as quickly as the Northeast and Rust Belt are dying, so property is a solid investment here.

    Wage-labor to retirement is likely a thing of the past, once the Boomers are gone. Marx was wrong – robotics has allowed owners of capital to dispense with workers altogether, rather than workers eventually experiencing conditions so atrocious that they rise up and seize control. The Neoliberals are winning, as they reduce us all to disposable capital inputs utilized on a gig basis, without benefits – like retirement.

    I actually think that the death of work *could* be a good thing, but only if the productivity gains imparted by robotics actually flow to displaced workers. But pretty much all productivity gains since the ’70s and the financialization of the global economy have flowed to owners of capital – banks, in particular. Who systematically intervene in the political system to protect their gains.

    ‘Course, once the whole global economic system chokes on trade wars and geopolitical uncertainty, dynamics will probably change – faster than we’d all like. But without some kind of sustained, widespread, and *effective* popular movement to demand basic reforms, the changes will benefit the very people who got us all into this mess.

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  5. Once in a while you come across someone who tells the truth. There is an excellent article in The Intercept, ” A veteran national security journalist with NBC News and MSNBC blasted the networks in a Monday email for becoming captive and subservient to the national security state, reflexively pro-war in the name of stopping President Donald Trump, and now the prime propaganda instrument of the War Machine’s promotion of militarism and imperialism.”

    The NBC/MSNBC reporter, William Arkin is the journalist. https://theintercept.com/2019/01/03/veteran-nbcmsnbc-journalist-blasts-the-network-for-being-captive-to-the-national-security-state-and-reflexively-pro-war-to-stop-trump/

    Arkin further writes:
    “Despite being at “war,” no great wartime leaders or visionaries are emerging. There is not a soul in Washington who can say that they have won or stopped any conflict. And though there might be the beloved perfumed princes in the form of the Petraeus’ and Wes Clarks’, or the so-called warrior monks like Mattis and McMaster, we’ve had more than a generation of national security leaders who sadly and fraudulently have done little of consequence. And yet we (and others) embrace them, even the highly partisan formers who masquerade as “analysts”. We do so ignoring the empirical truth of what they have wrought: There is not one country in the Middle East that is safer today than it was 18 years ago. Indeed the world becomes ever more polarized and dangerous.

    As perpetual war has become accepted as a given in our lives, I’m proud to say that I’ve never deviated in my argument at NBC (or at my newspaper gigs) that terrorists will never be defeated until we better understand why they are driven to fighting. And I have maintained my central view that airpower (in its broadest sense including space and cyber) is not just the future but the enabler and the tool of war today.”
    ============================================
    Perhaps I am a victim of my own confirmation bias, as see Mr. Arkin confirming what I have long thought: The Pentagon, Defense Contractors, Congress and now the McMega-Media have formed an interlocking defense, that defends it self at all times against criticism, and quickly goes on the attack against anyone who challenges their supremacy.

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    1. That’s how social systems evolve, I think. Establish a food source – unlimited “defense” spending, and the creatures that grow fat use some of their ill-gotten-gains to defend their privileged position.

      Doesn’t even take a conspiracy – just self-interested twits refusing to accept that their actions have long-term consequences for the rest of us. They’ll self-organize to defend both the trough and their position near it.

      Pattern is reminiscent of a Sears or a Toys R Us, dying brands run by CEO after CEO who sacrifices long-term stability for short-term profits, takes the golden parachute, and leaves those stockholders (probably retirees, now that anyone with a 401k effectively underwrites Wall Street day-trader shenanigans) in the lurch.

      Except that Sears and Toys R Us will soon be gone, forever. But the Military-Industrial Complex can persist so long as paid-for politicians see no personal incentive to rein it in. So long as the American Empire and its supporting infrastructure in D.C. remain intact.

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      1. Well put. And indeed the incentive is always to grow. Because any shrinkage can be dangerous (or, it can be couched in those terms). Thus pulling out of Syria is framed as enabling another 9/11. And if there is a future terrorist attack (almost unpreventable), the MIC zealots will cry “See! We were vulnerable because you cut defense spending! Because you pulled troops out of Iraq/Afghanistan/Syria/etc.”

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        1. Never mind, of course (taboo to say in polite American circles) that it was military involvement and backing vicious dictators in the Middle East that made America a target for Al Qaeda in the first place.

          But if another 9/11 did occur, half the politicians in DC would do a happy dance at the prospect of being able to do whatever they want for a few more years.

          In that vein, anyone notice this lovely bit of garbage in the happily neoliberal/pro-empire The Atlantic?

          https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/01/democrats-would-be-wrong-cut-us-military-spending/579457/

          Note that the author does a clever rhetorical trick not backed up by empirics (but what does that matter, when you are an esteemed Transatlantic publication?) – he conflates reductions in military spending with reductions in $ going to personnel and Veterans care. Completely neglecting to mention that most defense allocations do *not* go to personnel or healthcare, but to operations, maintenance, and acquisitions.

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