American Militarism Is Riding High

W.J. Astore

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?

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Because nothing says “America” like tanks, fences, barriers, police, and a sign saying the way is closed to the “left”

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…

Read more of my essay here at TomDispatch.com.

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.

11 thoughts on “American Militarism Is Riding High

  1. Glad to be a new subscriber to your Blog having learned of you in TomDispatch Today.

    Re your addendum, I posted this in all The Washington Post articles and other sites on Trump’s 4th of July Military Show.

    The American People, and the People in the News Media, did not notice the gross irony of Trump MILITARIZING the Lincoln Memorial, the same place where Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Many Americans think Trump is turning that Dream into a ‘Nightmare.’

    Reverend King saw, “A Nation that continues year after year to spend more on War than on programs of Social uplift is approaching Spiritual Death.”

    Trump is BORROWING the money to give $50 BILLION extra to the Military when it already is the most bloated Defense Budget in this whole World, and to finance the huge TAX break for the rich, the richer you are, the less TAX you pay.

    With it’s delusional, self-proclaimed exceptionalism in BLIND USA! USA! America 1st Patriotism, the American People are rushing headlong, oblivious to the reality they are on this Path Christ warns about, ‘for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that lead to destruction, and many there be which go in that way.’

    http://www.ray032.com

    Liked by 1 person

      1. we, your devoted readers, could not survive w/out your insightful, judicious, and compassionate articles, sir astore. you give us all hope that, w/ dedicated sages like you, divulgating your wisdom and equipoise, despite your military ‘backdraft’, the US will once again prevail as a bastion of intelligent and equitable planning for its citizens whose infrastructures are collapsing by orders of magnitude. this has been primarily due to the MIC’s decades-long suzerainty over congress, the judiciary, the white house, and those beleaguered taxpayers who have been lulled and dulled into the lotusland of nescient complacency.

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  2. One of your best essays, WJAsore! Thanks for reminding me of J. William Fullbright, me being a product of the Vietnam Era. He had it right! Still does…
    Me being more “commercial” than Military, the only good news I can report today is the banks are running out of money – again. In my opinion, this has a lot to do with the MIC. Plenty of money to support the “Flying Edsel”, ie F-35, but nothing for fast trains & health services for Americans. Call detractors “kooks”, but Federal Reserve’s job was to support employment & control inflation. They’ve done neither: “Kooks” claim it should be abolished. I agree; it would starve MIC into bankruptcy. Frightfully, internationally they’re now interconnected: they can steal gold from wherever. Libya, Venezuela, Syria, Iraq.
    Yet the irony is US Imperialism/Militarism is far more expensive; thus the deterioration of American lifestyle.

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  3. The last I heard, the attempt to audit the DoD failed with the auditors throwing up their hands saying the documentation was so disorganized that an audit would be impossible. That’s quite a statement that should bring a call for action, as it is an admission that money is being thrown to the winds.

    AFAIK, silence since then. Has anyone heard of any even minor flurry of attention to this? This, to me, is proof that the fraud is institutionalized with great vested interested to protect.

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    1. True. But the Pentagon spun that as “We expected to fail [the audit].” As if failing is a good thing, a normal result, a path to success.

      Next up: We expected to lose that war. But losing is actually winning …

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  4. The American Conservative mentions the following in their August 15, 2018 issue:

    The Recruitment Problem:
    It’s not a secret: a surefire way for a presidential contender to get votes is to promise to increase the defense budget. It has worked for nearly every president since John Kennedy—and it worked for Donald Trump.

    Here’s the arithmetic: one in three potential recruits are disqualified from service because they’re overweight, one in four cannot meet minimal educational standards (a high school diploma or GED equivalent), and one in 10 have a criminal history. In plain terms, about 71 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds (the military’s target pool of potential recruits) are disqualified from the minute they enter a recruiting station: that’s 24 million out of 34 million Americans.

    In addition to winnowing out recruits due to mental, physical, and social ineligibility, there’s a natural cap to the pool. There are, after all, perfectly good reasons why young Americans might not want to serve: the military is regimented, physically demanding, sometimes boring and often dangerous.

    One of the challenges the military faces is that it recruits in states where America has the greatest fitness and obesity challenge—the Deep South. For while America’s soldiers, sailors, and airmen are educated, fit, and good citizens, they’re also religious, rural, conservative (80 percent of military personnel voted for Donald Trump), and Southern.

    So while the U.S. military is ethnically and racially diverse (with increasing numbers of women), it’s not geographically diverse, even though military officers insist that they recruit everywhere.
    https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-recruitment-problem-the-military-doesnt-want-to-talk-about/
    ================

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  5. A Dreadful Success
    (with thanks to Michael Parenti for the accurate terminology)

    In two-thousand-nine, he got rolled right away
    Another new President easy to sway.
    Without thinking much or too long or too deep
    He fell for the generals’ choice: mission-creep.

    He had many “options” from which he could choose
    Which all added up to just one: Do not “lose,”
    Which they’d say he did if he wisely withdrew
    So he caved in with only one turn of the screw.

    Except that the screwing, once started, goes on
    From morning till sundown; from dusk until dawn,
    For days, weeks, and months stretching into long years
    Then two terms speed past bathed in blood, sweat, and tears.

    And now a successor Commander-in-Brief
    (A waste of good skin and an oxygen thief)
    Gets his turn to fold at the start of the game
    Letting “experts at war” sell him more of the same,

    Who haven’t a clue after seventeen years
    Except that the budget once more disappears,
    With none to account for where everything went
    While the world stands outside pissing into the tent.

    It ought to have dawned on someone before now
    That thieves know their business: the when, where, and how
    Of letting the brass have a taste of the cake
    Then calling their lost wars a “tragic mistake.”

    But profits piled up for a fabulous few
    While everyone else gets to dine on shit stew
    Looks nothing at all, to the rich, like a mess
    But, rather, a well-thought-out, class-war success.

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2019

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re on a different kind of a roll, Mike. Well done.

      Yes, “mission-creep.” And “not losing” means never withdrawing while wasting boatloads of money.

      As you say, there’s always a winner. It’s just not people like us.

      Like

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