The USA is a violent land. And perhaps that might be OK, if we limited the violence to us. But we’ve become the world’s leading exporter of deadly weaponry, a fact I was reminded of this morning as I read William Hartung’s latest article on the military-industrial complex at TomDispatch.com. In detailing the ever-growing power of the Complex, Hartung had this telling sentence:
When pressed, Raytheon officials argue that, in enabling mass slaughter, they are simply following U.S. government policy.
Tragic as that statement is, it’s also true. As I’ve written about before, weapons ‘r’ us. Our so-called peacetime economy is geared to war, homeland security, surveillance, and other forms of violent and coercive technologies and products. Even as America seeks to prevent other countries from acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMD), we’re actively seeking to sell WMD to others, as long as those weapons are Made in the USA and go to “allies” that pay promptly, like the Saudis.
Being the world’s leading purveyor of violence can only lead to America’s spiritual death, as Martin Luther King Jr. argued so eloquently a half-century ago. As MLK’s words show, this tragic reality is nothing new in America. As Senator J. William Fulbright noted in 1970, the U.S. emerged after World War II to become “the world’s major salesman of armaments.” Fulbright went further and quoted Marine Corps General David M. Shoup, a Medal of Honor recipient, and Shoup’s conclusion that “America has become a militaristic and aggressive nation.” Remember, this was fifty years ago, when the U.S. at least faced a real threat from Communism, no matter how much we inflated it. We face no equivalent threat today, no matter how much the Pentagon hyperventilates about China and Russia.
Returning to Hartung’s article, I like his title: “Eisenhower’s Worst Nightmare.” Indeed it is, in the sense that the military-industrial complex is, ultimately, an American complex. Which makes me think of another Eisenhower sentiment: that only Americans can truly hurt America. That our biggest enemy is within our borders: our own violence, aggression, fear, and hatred, especially of others.
Ike was right about the Complex, and he was right about how America would truly be hurt and defeated. The enemy is not from without. No walls will keep him out. No — the enemy is within. And it won’t — indeed, it can’t — be defeated by weapons and violence. Indeed, more weapons and violence only make it stronger.
Be an indispensable nation, America. Be exceptional. Be great. As Melania Trump might say, Be Best. How? Stop exporting violence. And stop the hurt within.
In his book, The Politics, Aristotle expressed a famous claim that political science textbooks have been quoting for generations: man is by nature a political animal. Less appreciated has been Aristotle’s follow-up assertion that “man is the only animal that nature has endowed with the gift of speech, [which gift] is intended to set forth the advantageous and disadvantageous, the just and the unjust.”
With these claims Aristotle is reminding us that speech counts for a lot in politics. One need only consider how the language of politics in the post-New Deal, post-Great Society U.S. shifted so that it became a matter of course for millions of modest income Americans to vote for politicians who promised to cut, eliminate, or privatize government programs (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) that have kept so many vulnerable Americans from going under. Foundations such as the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, Richard Mellon Scaife Foundation provided financial support for scholars and pundits willing to make the libertarian argument for an every-man-for-himself society for which, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan in his first inaugural address, government is the problem, not the solution.
Funded by wealthy interests and individuals, these foundations and think tanks developed the rhetoric (e.g., “death tax” instead of “estate tax”) and ideas (e.g., cutting taxes increases government revenues) that would be picked up and propagated by conservative politicians across the country. Reagan himself, who began his national political career on the pundit side of conservative politics as a paid spokesman of General Electric giving speeches at GE plants across the country, paid homage to the decades-long conservative struggle to change the political conversation when he said, “The American Enterprise Institute stands at the center of a revolution of ideas of which I too have been a part…”
While it is too early confidently to guess which of the democratic contenders for the presidential nomination will face off against Trump, it is not too early to appreciate how much the speech of a certain senator from Vermont has changed the national conversation. Every time Bernie Sanders appears in public and speaks, whether at a televised debate, on a union picket line, on the stump in Iowa or New Hampshire, or on a college campus, his words serve to enlarge and invigorate the space of political discourse in this country. His relentlessly on-message campaign in 2016 for a $15-dollar-minimum (“living”) wage, Medicare-for-All, tuition-free public colleges and universities, highlighting global warming as an existential threat, a political revolution against a corrupt system, had discernible impacts in local, state and national races in 2018. Consider as well the leftward policy positioning of several of his fellow candidates for the 2020 nomination; their language and positions often echo those of Sanders.
And while it is also too early to tell whether his recent speech at George Washington University successfully immunized the word, socialism, from the taboo status it has labored under in American political culture since at least the post-World War One Red Scare, Bernie Sanders’ evocation of FDR’s “Economic Bill of Rights” and his enlargement of the notion of being free to encompass having adequate health insurance, for example, or having access to a college education without sinking into paralyzing debt continues his crucial efforts to change the language of U.S. politics.
In helping to reshape the language of American politics, Bernie Sanders may go down in U.S. history as the presidential candidate who did not need to win to get his most important work done.
M. Davout, a professor of political science, teaches in the American South.
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I again turn to the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex, inspired by a critique written by J. William Fulbright almost a half-century ago. Given the murderous and disastrous war in Southeast Asia of Fulbright’s time, many Americans back then were willing to be highly critical of the military, especially with a draft still in force. (A draft that privileged men like Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump managed to avoid.) Nowadays, of course, Americans are encouraged to venerate the military, to salute “our” troops, to applaud as various warplanes soar overhead, as they did during Donald Trump’s recent militaristic July 4th ceremony. What we’re not encouraged to do is to criticize or even to question America’s vast military establishment and its enormous power, even though President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about that establishment in his famous farewell speech in 1961.
It’s high time we Americans listened to Ike as well as to J.W. Fulbright. Let’s give the latter a close listen, shall we?
A while back … I stumbled across Senator J. William Fulbright’s 1970 book The Pentagon Propaganda Machine and, out of curiosity, bought it for the princely sum of five dollars. Now, talk about creepy. Fulbright, who left the Senate in 1974 and died in 1995, noted a phenomenon then that should ring a distinct bell today. Americans, he wrote, “have grown distressingly used to war.” He then added a line that still couldn’t be more up to date: “Violence is our most important product.” Congress, he complained (and this, too, should ring a distinct bell in 2019), was shoveling money at the Pentagon “with virtually no questions asked,” while costly weapons systems were seen mainly “as a means of prosperity,” especially for the weapons makers of the military-industrial complex. “Militarism has been creeping up on us,” he warned, and the American public, conditioned by endless crises and warnings of war, had grown numb, leaving “few, other than the young, [to] protest against what is happening.”
Back then, of course, the bogeyman that kept the process going was Communism. America’s exaggerated fear of Communism then (and terrorism now) strengthened militarism at home in a myriad of ways while, as Fulbright put it, “undermining democratic procedure and values.” And doesn’t that ring a few bells, too? Complicit in all this was the Pentagon’s own propaganda machine, which worked hard “to persuade the American people that the military is good for you.”
Perhaps my favorite passage from that book was a message the senator received from a citizen who had attended a Pentagon rah-rah “informational seminar.” Writing to Fulbright, he suggested that “the greatest threat to American national security is the American Military Establishment and the no-holds-barred type of logic it uses to justify its zillion-dollar existence.”
In a rousing conclusion on the “dangers of the military sell” that seems no less apt nearly a half-century later, Fulbright warned that America’s “chronic state of war” was generating a “monster [military] bureaucracy.” Citing the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, he noted how “the mindless violence of war” was eroding America’s moral values and ended by emphasizing that dealing with the growth of immoral militarism was vitally important to the country’s future.
“The best defense against militarism is peace; the next best thing is the vigorous practice of democracy,” he noted, citing the dissenters of his day who opposed America’s murderous war in Southeast Asia. And he added a warning no less applicable today: Americans shouldn’t put their faith in senior military men whose “parochial talents” were too narrow “to equip them with the balance of judgment needed to play the political role they now hold in our society.”
Reading Fulbright today, I couldn’t help but recall one of my dad’s favorite sayings, translated from the French: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Sure, the weaponry may be upgraded (drones with Hellfire missiles rather than bombers dropping napalm); the names of the countries may be different (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia rather than Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia); even the stated purpose of the wars of the moment may have altered (fighting terrorism rather than defeating Communism); but over the last 50 years, the most fundamental things have remained remarkably consistent: militarism, violence, the endless feeding of the military-industrial complex, the growth of the national security state, and wars, ever more wars, always purportedly waged in the name of peace.
Sometimes when you buy a used book, it comes with a bonus. This one held between its pages a yellowed clipping of a contemporary New York Times review with the telling title, “O What a Lovely Pentagon.” In agreeing with Fulbright, the reviewer, Herbert Mitgang, himself a veteran of World War II, wrote:
“To keep up the [Pentagon] budgets, all three services compete for bigger and better armaments in coordination with the publicity salesmen from the major corporations — for whom retired generals and admirals serve as front men. Thousands of uniformed men and millions of dollars are involved in hard-selling the Pentagon way of life.”
Change “millions” to “billions” and Mitgang’s point remains as on target as ever.
Citing another book under review, which critiqued U.S. military procurement practices, Mitgang concluded: “What emerges here is a permanent floating crap game with the taxpayer as loser and Congress as banker, shelling out for Pentagon and peace profiteers with an ineptitude that would bankrupt any other business.”
Spot on, Herb Mitgang, who perhaps played his share of craps during his Army service!
As I read Fulbright’s almost 50-year-old polemic and Mitgang’s hard-hitting review, I asked myself, how did the American people come to forget, or perhaps never truly absorb, such lessons? How did we stop worrying about war and come to love the all-volunteer military quite so much? (Thank you for your service!) So much so that, today, we engorge the Pentagon and the rest of the national security state with well more than a trillion taxpayer dollars annually — and the power to match…
Addendum: Along with Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, Trump’s July 4th ceremony turned into a military air show of sorts. When you read the Declaration of Independence from 1776, you’re reminded that the colonists wanted to be free of the King’s wars and their high costs. Now, on Independence Day, we celebrate our military weaponry without mentioning the high costs, even as we ignore our unending wars.
It’s time for another political revolution against the king’s wars and their high costs. It’s time to throw off the heavy yoke of militarism in America.
You won’t see this illustration in the mainstream media:
If the Iranians really wanted peace, they’d move their country.
In all seriousness, U.S. media talking heads, many of them retired military officers, are constantly talking about the aggression of others and their weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Never do these “experts” speak of U.S. aggression and the WMD we have in our possession. Indeed, the U.S. maintains an earth-busting arsenal of nuclear weapons, and we remain the only country to have used atomic bombs for real (at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945). Yet we’re the ones who have to worry about Iranian nuclear weapons that don’t yet exist (and probably never will)?
Tom Engelhardt has a great new article at TomDispatch.com on how the U.S. always sees itself as the victim, as the aggrieved party, as the one who’s being threatened. Here’s an excerpt:
So here’s the strange thing, on a planet on which, in 2017, U.S. Special Operations forces deployed to 149 countries, or approximately 75% of all nations; on which the U.S. has perhaps 800 military garrisons outside its own territory; on which the U.S. Navy patrols most of its oceans and seas; on which U.S. unmanned aerial drones conduct assassination strikes across a surprising range of countries; and on which the U.S. has been fighting wars, as well as more minor conflicts, for years on end from Afghanistan to Libya, Syria to Yemen, Iraq to Niger in a century in which it chose to launch full-scale invasions of two countries (Afghanistan and Iraq), is it truly reasonable never to identify the U.S. as an “aggressor” anywhere?
What you might say about the United States is that, as the self-proclaimed leading proponent of democracy and human rights (even if its president is now having a set of love affairs with autocrats and dictators), Americans consider ourselves at home just about anywhere we care to be on planet Earth. It matters little how we may be armed and what we might do. Consequently, wherever Americans are bothered, harassed, threatened, attacked, we are always the ones being provoked and aggressed upon, never provoking and aggressing. I mean, how can you be the aggressor in your own house, even if that house happens to be temporarily located in Afghanistan, Iraq, or perhaps soon enough in Iran?
The U.S. as an aggressor? Impossible! Our military installations, our weaponry, even our wars are all about keeping the peace. Right?
There was a time, almost 250 years ago, when Americans successfully fought for their independence (though quite a few “loyalists” preferred compromise with the British crown). There was a time, 75 years ago, when Americans landed on the beaches of Normandy to defeat Nazi aggression. But when you look at America’s long history of wars, precious few of them can be said to have been defensive in nature. Indeed, most were acts of aggression, e.g. the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, the long bloody wars against Native Americans, the Vietnam War, and more recent, undeclared, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Dare I state the obvious? Americans are generally not shy, diffident, passive people. Ask most foreigners about Americans and you’ll hear words like pushy, outspoken, loud, and, yes, aggressive. (Of course. not all Americans fit this description, but think of recent representatives like Trump, Pompeo, and Bolton or Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld.) Yet, with all our aggressiveness, with all our violent tendencies, why do we continue to see others as the pushy ones, the headstrong ones, the ones who want war?
A little empathy, America? Forget about it! Come on, Iran. It’s time to move. And since the U.S. dominates this planet, I have the perfect destination for you. How about Mars?
But wait: NASA wants to launch a manned mission there! And since Mars is named after the god of war, it’s a natural for us. Red and fiery in the sky — how long until we build our first military base there?