Time to Change America

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There’s only one Spaceship Earth

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I argue that the coronavirus crisis provides an opportunity to reimagine America.  Please read the entire article at TomDispatch; what follows is an extended excerpt.  Thanks!

This should be a time for a genuinely new approach, one fit for a world of rising disruption and disaster, one that would define a new, more democratic, less bellicose America. To that end, here are seven suggestions, focusing — since I’m a retired military officer — mainly on the U.S. military, a subject that continues to preoccupy me, especially since, at present, that military and the rest of the national security state swallow up roughly 60% of federal discretionary spending:

1. If ever there was a time to reduce our massive and wasteful military spending, this is it. There was never, for example, any sense in investing up to $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years to “modernize” America’s nuclear arsenal. (Why are new weapons needed to exterminate humanity when the “old” ones still work just fine?) Hundreds of stealth fighters and bombers — it’s estimated that Lockheed Martin’s disappointing F-35 jet fighter alone will cost $1.5 trillion over its life span — do nothing to secure us from pandemics, the devastating effects of climate change, or other all-too-pressing threats. Such weaponry only emboldens a militaristic and chauvinistic foreign policy that will facilitate yet more wars and blowback problems of every sort. And speaking of wars, isn’t it finally time to end U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan? More than $6 trillion has already been wasted on those wars and, in this time of global peril, even more is being wasted on this country’s forever conflicts across the Greater Middle East and Africa. (Roughly $4 billion a month continues to be spent on Afghanistan alone, despite all the talk about “peace” there.)

2. Along with ending profligate weapons programs and quagmire wars, isn’t it time for the U.S. to begin dramatically reducing its military “footprint” on this planet? Roughly 800 U.S. military bases circle the globe in a historically unprecedented fashion at a yearly cost somewhere north of $100 billion. Cutting such numbers in half over the next decade would be a more than achievable goal. Permanently cutting provocative “war games” in South Korea, Europe, and elsewhere would be no less sensible. Are North Korea and Russia truly deterred by such dramatic displays of destructive military might?

3. Come to think of it, why does the U.S. need the immediate military capacity to fight two major foreign wars simultaneously, as the Pentagon continues to insist we do and plan for, in the name of “defending” our country? Here’s a radical proposal: if you add 70,000 Special Operations forces to 186,000 Marine Corps personnel, the U.S. already possesses a potent quick-strike force of roughly 250,000 troops. Now, add in the Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions and the 10th Mountain Division. What you have is more than enough military power to provide for America’s actual national security. All other Army divisions could be reduced to cadres, expandable only if our borders are directly threatened by war. Similarly, restructure the Air Force and Navy to de-emphasize the present “global strike” vision of those services, while getting rid of Donald Trump’s newest service, the Space Force, and the absurdist idea of taking war into low earth orbit. Doesn’t America already have enough war here on this small planet of ours?

4. Bring back the draft, just not for military purposes. Make it part of a national service program for improving America. It’s time for a new Civilian Conservation Corps focused on fostering a Green New Deal. It’s time for a new Works Progress Administration to rebuild America’s infrastructure and reinvigorate our culture, as that organization did in the Great Depression years. It’s time to engage young people in service to this country. Tackling COVID-19 or future pandemics would be far easier if there were quickly trained medical aides who could help free doctors and nurses to focus on the more difficult cases. Tackling climate change will likely require more young men and women fighting forest fires on the west coast, as my dad did while in the CCC — and in a climate-changing world there will be no shortage of other necessary projects to save our planet. Isn’t it time America’s youth answered a call to service? Better yet, isn’t it time we offered them the opportunity to truly put America, rather than themselves, first?

5. And speaking of “America First,” that eternal Trumpian catch-phrase, isn’t it time for all Americans to recognize that global pandemics and climate change make a mockery of walls and go-it-alone nationalism, not to speak of politics that divide, distract, and keep so many down? President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said that only Americans can truly hurt America, but there’s a corollary to that: only Americans can truly save America — by uniting, focusing on our common problems, and uplifting one another. To do so, it’s vitally necessary to put an end to fear-mongering (and warmongering). As President Roosevelt famously said in his first inaugural address in the depths of the Great Depression, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Fear inhibits our ability to think clearly, to cooperate fully, to change things radically as a community.

6. To cite Yoda, the Jedi master, we must unlearn what we have learned. For example, America’s real heroes shouldn’t be “warriors” who kill or sports stars who throw footballs and dunk basketballs. We’re witnessing our true heroes in action right now: our doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel, together with our first responders, and those workers who stay in grocery stores, pharmacies, and the like and continue to serve us all despite the danger of contracting the coronavirus from customers. They are all selflessly resisting a threat too many of us either didn’t foresee or refused to treat seriously, most notably, of course, President Donald Trump: a pandemic that transcends borders and boundaries. But can Americans transcend the increasingly harsh and divisive borders and boundaries of our own minds? Can we come to work selflessly to save and improve the lives of others? Can we become, in a sense, lovers of humanity?

7. Finally, we must extend our love to encompass nature, our planet. For if we keep treating our lands, our waters, and our skies like a set of trash cans and garbage bins, our children and their children will inherit far harder times than the present moment, hard as it may be.

What these seven suggestions really amount to is rejecting a militarized mindset of aggression and a corporate mindset of exploitation for one that sees humanity and this planet more holistically. Isn’t it time to regain that vision of the earth we shared collectively during the Apollo moon missions: a fragile blue sanctuary floating in the velvety darkness of space, an irreplaceable home to be cared for and respected since there’s no other place for us to go?

28 thoughts on “Time to Change America

    1. In all seriousness, most politicians, I think, have a lust for power. Add to that “moral flexibility” as well, i.e. it helps if you have no core principles. You have to show a willingness to kowtow to power, which is made evident through spineless begging for money in pursuit of power. And on some level you have to enjoy it all, because running for office is a grind, but it’s a grind some people are good at, or at least they’re good at faking it until they get what they want, then they’re unaccountable to people like us, in which case all we can do is vote them out. Sigh.

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  1. I would add one more. Any future military intervention must be funded by a tax increase to pay for it. People need to know what is the cost of these interventions.

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    1. Stephen–Old and (very) bad habits are so hard to break! Our (I write as a lifelong US citizen) future has been mortgaged to fund Endless Wars of Choice. The ultimate price is almost too terrible to contemplate! And that’s what we’re encouraged to do–“Don’t worry, be happy!” as Bobby McFerrin sang many years ago–DON’T contemplate it!! This approach of never addressing our grotesquely huge problems has also been described as “Kicking the can farther down the road.” Just keep piling the National Debt higher. Eventually, we will find we’ve reached the end of the road. A cul-de-sac with NO EXITS.

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  2. Your column (read on Counterpunch) is a blueprint for much of what is essential towards healing this nation and the world. Thank you for clearly stating what I’ve been saying and writing for 50 years. Compassion and love must be the foundation for all our relations with each other and all of life’s miracles.

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  3. I read this on TomDispatch on Sunday. I’ll keep this very brief: My understanding is that the gov’t commission appointed to look into the status of conscription–which was never ended, merely suspended–and which was open to public comment, will issue its final report and call for the drafting of women. I think it will be friendly to idea of some kind of mandatory national service without necessarily urging it. I have commented previously on social media that we urgently need something like the CCC. As for taming the Military Beast and putting it in a sturdy cage, well, that will “merely” require a revolution. Much stronger medicine than what Bernie Sanders, bless his heart, advocates for.

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  4. Note to readers: I wrote this article before the details of the “Coronavirus Stimulus” were worked out by Congress and the President. Those details show (surprise!) contempt for workers and total compliance to corporate and financial interests. Jimmy Dore has a good summary here with Max Blumenthal:

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    1. Yes, that’s the real trick. And I’m under no illusions. Ike warned us about the military-industrial complex in 1961, and his warning has largely been ignored, even dismissed.

      What’s the answer? Continued advocacy. And a willingness to protest. But it’s hard indeed to overcome the moneyed interests, especially since in America, money=speech, so the more money you have …

      Persistence is key. And voting against those who are determined to ruin our planet.

      Sorry — I don’t have any magical solutions.

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  5. Long overdue–from this Vietnam (combat) Vet, retired Physician, son of a WWII Vet Father and a Mennonite (pacifist) Mother (married 59 years) — it is time to turn swords into plowshares, use the enormous military medicine might in the service of civilian pandemic
    distress.

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  6. Excellent article, but I have BIG problems with point № 4. The government has no business telling people how they must participate in society, and if it does so, it will cultivate only resentment, not cooperation, especially given the substandard public education system that the U.S. is currently subject to. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the draft unconstitutional (even though penal battalions aren’t)? Wasn’t Obamacare ruled to be unconstitutional for a similar reason? It seems to me that your entire point here is that people have too much self-determination, but with diminishing public education and increasing restrictions on small business, employment under age 18, etc, that the government is already against self-determination.

    Now, as far as the current crisis is concerned, since I’m a fly on the wall in the proverbial war room, I have some insights you may be interested in. First of all, CovID-19 isn’t “part of the plan,” so people are panicking. Influenza spreads just as quickly, and kills many more people annually than this coronavirus has so far, but influenza is something that we deal with every year. Flu causes panic only when a novel flu strain that is either particularly deadly or difficult to vaccinate against appears, such as the H1N1 “swine flu,” or H5N1 and H7N9 avian flu strains (by the way, scientists test, at minimum, tens of thousands of birds annually for new flu strains, and enlist the services of many locals along the migration routes to help collect samples). Second, this coronavirus has already mutated at least twice, so pharmaceutical companies, with the help of HHS, are scrambling to develop not one, but three vaccines, and vaccines take months to develop. The unusual antigen configuration of this particular virus isn’t making the process easy, either. Unlike with annual influenza, there was almost no warning with the CovID-19 outbreak, since China tried to prevent word of it from getting out for two months. Speaking of which, China is to blame for nearly all pandemics throughout history, and no, I do not mean the Communist Party. Because China is so densely populated and the Chinese eat some weird things, novel diseases spring up there all the time, going all the way back to the Black Death, and possibly even further. Southeast Asia is a hotspot for influenza research for this very reason, and a proverbial distant early warning line for western nations during flu season. Third, the DPA has gone into full effect both officially and unoffically and at large and small scales. By that, I mean that people have already started volunteering their services, regardless of how much they can provide, or even if they were asked. I could provide multiple examples of people other than medical professionals or food service workers, but this comment is too long already. To me, it doesn’t seem like this pandemic is being particularly divisive, and the only ones I see grumbling are the ones being told that they can’t work, because no-one likes to feel useless (and people still have bills to pay).

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    1. Another option for #4 is to tie “free” college education to national service in a new CCC/WPA/Green Corps. When my dad was in the CCC, it was “voluntary,” even though he joined out of financial desperation, earning $30 a month, $25 of which was sent home to his mother. He served for two years.

      So make it voluntary with the benefit of free education at a state college/university of your choice. Serve for one year, get two years of college. Serve for two, get four.

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      1. The move to an “all-volunteer” military–offering financial incentives to “marginal” members of society, with recruiters happily overlooking criminal histories, etc.–was started mere months before I exited the US Army in 1971. We now have a military machine of which US Presidents, including “liberals” like Obama, love to boast as “the finest in the world.” To what end is this mighty machine put? Maintaining the ability of US corporations to exploit resources in other lands. Pure and simple. (Pardon my Marxism!) Occasionally members of this machine get caught violating “the rules of war.” Seldom is anyone really punished for atrocious behavior. Indeed, it can lead to a personal invitation to visit POTUS at his Mar-a-Lago resort. Be that as it may…If our contiguous states were genuinely threatened with invasion, would not enough people rise up to volunteer their services in our defense? Thus, in my view, there is no legitimate need for conscription of unwilling individuals into military service.

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        1. I agree. No conscription.

          And “boots on the ground” should be far fewer. Our Founders were against large standing armies because they enable war. We need only enough to protect ourselves. More than that is a waste of lives and resources, and not just our lives and our resources, because violence exported is violence exploded — and it always seems to rebound here as well, and in unpredictable ways.

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          1. The Founding Fathers–“Women need not apply!”–were, of course, “rugged individualists” and totally for capitalism, for exploitation. But if we could resurrect them and take them on a tour of the present state of USA I believe they would be utterly disheartened and mortified. Of course, technology would appear like “black magic” to their 18th Century sensibility, but the wealth disparity and despoiling of the landscape in the name of a quick buck, I am sure, would be the saddest phenomenon they would observe. Oh, and the monstrously overblown military and its attendant budget, it should go without saying!

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    2. My theory about the draft is that citizenship should be earned… and the only way to earn it is thru some amount of public service that could include military service but could also include a long list of other public services… So the draft would be mainly for that, but no obligation otherwise. You don’t want to be a citizen, no problem. I think the rest of society might be happy to get along without you.

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      1. I can get on board with that. You would have “citizens” and “civilians,” much like Ancient Rome, but better, since military service is not for everyone.

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  7. I thought my theory about the draft (above?) was going to be positioned in reply to Kaja…but no matter. I think it works wherever it might end up positioned.

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    1. Sorry, I wasn’t checking this feed. I just replied to your first comment as soon as I got the notification via e-mail. I’m in the process of writing my own opinion piece on the subject, since your initial reply got the wheels spinning in my head.

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  8. I almost totally agree with almost everything being said, that this should be a good time for a new approach toward a more democratic and less bellicose (and less militarized) America.”
    1. If ever there was a time this is it!
    2. Time to dramatically reduce our military footprint by (carefully) closing down at least half of our 800 U.S. military bases worldwide…
    3. Time to stop planning to fight two major foreign wars and both (at the same time)…
    4. Time to bring back a draft “without obligation” (and let it apply to all forms of Public Service to “earn” citizenship)…
    5. Time to recognize that global pandemics and global climate change make a mockery of walls and “go-it-alone nationalism?” Etc…

    Our fragile “blue sanctuary” can no longer afford to allow business as usual… Life on earth has got to stop being about money and start being about, “whatever the new rules of life on earth requires.”

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  9. Interesting article excepts below:
    Trump’s Chernobyl Moment:
    The US may be reaching its “Chernobyl moment” as it fails to lead in combating the coronavirus epidemic.
    A Chinese charity sent 300,000 face masks to Belgium in a container on which was written the slogan “Unity Makes Strength” in French, Flemish and Chinese.

    Such exercises in “soft power” may have limited influence once the crisis is over, though this is likely to be a long time coming. But, while it does so, the message is going out that China can provide essential equipment and expertise at a critical moment and the US cannot.

    Critics of “US decline-ism” explain that, while the US may no longer dominate the world economy to the degree it once did, it still has 800 bases around the world and a military budget of $748bn.

    Yet the inability of the US military to use its technical prowess to win wars in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq has shown how little it has got in return for its vast expenditure.

    Put simply, the US is no longer a country that the rest of the world wants to emulate or, if they do, the emulators tend to be authoritarian nativist demagogues or despots. https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/03/31/trumps-chernobyl-moment-the-us-may-lose-its-status-as-world-superpower-and-not-recover/

    Like the Soviets during Chernobyl and China during Corona neither dictatorship could acknowledge that an event could be not controlled by the usual methods. The Trumpet who has managed by lies, bluster and bluffs to control the messaging has now encountered something for the first time that is beyond his control and is relentlessly exposing his incompetence.

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    1. I think it’s safe to say, looking at the US’s military aggression track record, that no thinking person overseas finds this country something to emulate. We are the pariah of the world.

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  10. Yes, ML. Relentlessly exposing his incompetence — and his callousness, his egotism, his selfishness, his ignorance, his pettiness, his nastiness …

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