While the mainstream media focuses on alleged threats from without, the most insidious dangers are those from within America, as I argue in my latest article for TomDispatch.com. Here’s an excerpt:
Killing Democracy in America
The Military-Industrial Complex as a Cytokine Storm
By William J. Astore
The phrase “thinking about the unthinkable” has always been associated with the unthinkable cataclysm of a nuclear war, and rightly so. Lately, though, I’ve been pondering another kind of unthinkable scenario, nearly as nightmarish (at least for a democracy) as a thermonuclear Armageddon, but one that’s been rolling out in far slower motion: that America’s war on terror never ends because it’s far more convenient for America’s leaders to keep it going — until, that is, it tears apart anything we ever imagined as democracy.
I fear that it either can’t or won’t end because, as Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out in 1967 during the Vietnam War, the United States remains the world’s greatest purveyor of violence — and nothing in this century, the one he didn’t live to see, has faintly proved him wrong. Considered another way, Washington should be classified as the planet’s most committed arsonist, regularly setting or fanning the flames of fires globally from Libya to Iraq, Somalia to Afghanistan, Syria to — dare I say it — in some quite imaginable future Iran, even as our leaders invariably boast of having the world’s greatest firefighters (also known as the U.S. military).
Scenarios of perpetual war haunt my thoughts. For a healthy democracy, there should be few things more unthinkable than never-ending conflict, that steady drip-drip of death and destruction that drives militarism, reinforces authoritarianism, and facilitates disaster capitalism. In 1795, James Madison warned Americans that war of that sort would presage the slow death of freedom and representative government. His prediction seems all too relevant in a world in which, year after year, this country continues to engage in needless wars that have nothing to do with national defense.
You Wage War Long, You Wage It Wrong
To cite one example of needless war from the last century, consider America’s horrendous years of fighting in Vietnam and a critical lesson drawn firsthand from that conflict by reporter Jonathan Schell. “In Vietnam,” he noted, “I learned about the capacity of the human mind to build a model of experience that screens out even very dramatic and obvious realities.” As a young journalist covering the war, Schell saw that the U.S. was losing, even as its military was destroying startlingly large areas of South Vietnam in the name of saving it from communism. Yet America’s leaders, the “best and brightest” of the era, almost to a man refused to see that all of what passed for realism in their world, when it came to that war, was nothing short of a first-class lie.
Why? Because believing is seeing and they desperately wanted to believe that they were the good guys, as well as the most powerful guys on the planet. America was winning, it practically went without saying, because it had to be. They were infected by their own version of an all-American victory culture, blinded by a sense of this country’s obvious destiny: to be the most exceptional and exceptionally triumphant nation on this planet.
As it happened, it was far more difficult for grunts on the ground to deny the reality of what was happening — that they were fighting and dying in a senseless war. As a result, especially after the shock of the enemy’s Tet Offensive early in 1968, escalating protests within the military (and among veterans at home) together with massive antiwar demonstrations finally helped put the brakes on that war. Not before, however, more than 58,000 American troops died, along with millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians.
In the end, the war in Indochina was arguably too costly, messy, and futile to continue. But never underestimate the military-industrial complex, especially when it comes to editing or denying reality, while being eternally over-funded for that very reality. It’s a trait the complex has shared with politicians of both parties. Don’t forget, for instance, the way President Ronald Reagan reedited that disastrous conflict into a “noble cause” in the 1980s. And give him credit! That was no small thing to sell to an American public that had already lived through such a war. By the way, tell me something about that Reaganesque moment doesn’t sound vaguely familiar almost four decades later when our very own “wartime president” long ago declared victory in the “war” on Covid-19, even as the death toll from that virus approaches 150,000 in the homeland.
In the meantime, the military-industrial complex has mastered the long con of the no-win forever war in a genuinely impressive fashion. Consider the war in Afghanistan. In 2021 it will enter its third decade without an end in sight. Even when President Trump makes noises about withdrawing troops from that country, Congress approves an amendment to another massive, record-setting military budget with broad bipartisan support that effectively obstructs any efforts to do so (while the Pentagon continues to bargain Trump down on the subject).
The Vietnam War, which was destroying the U.S. military, finally ended in an ignominious withdrawal. Almost two decades later, after the 2001 invasion, the war in Afghanistan can now be — the dream of the Vietnam era — fought in a “limited” fashion, at least from the point of view of Congress, the Pentagon, and most Americans (who ignore it), even if not the Afghans. The number of American troops being killed is, at this point, acceptably low, almost imperceptible in fact (even if not to Americans who have lost loved ones over there).
More and more, the U.S. military is relying on air power, unmanned drones, mercenaries, local militias, paramilitaries, and private contractors. Minimizing American casualties is an effective way of minimizing negative media coverage here; so, too, are efforts by the Trump administration to classify nearly everything related to that war while denying or downplaying “collateral damage” — that is, dead civilians — from it.
Their efforts boil down to a harsh truth: America just plain lies about its forever wars, so that it can keep on killing in lands far from home.
When we as Americans refuse to take in the destruction we cause, we come to passively accept the belief system of the ruling class that what’s still bizarrely called “defense” is a “must have” and that we collectively must spend significantly more than a trillion dollars a year on the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and a sprawling network of intelligence agencies, all justified as necessary defenders of America’s freedom. Rarely does the public put much thought into the dangers inherent in a sprawling “defense” network that increasingly invades and dominates our lives.
Meanwhile, it’s clear that low-cost wars, at least in terms of U.S. troops killed and wounded in action, can essentially be prolonged indefinitely, even when they never result in anything faintly like victory or fulfill any faintly useful American goal. The Afghan War remains the case in point. “Progress” is a concept that only ever fits the enemy — the Taliban continues to gain ground — yet, in these years, figures like retired general and former CIA director David Petraeus have continued to call for a “generational” commitment of troops and resources there, akin to U.S. support for South Korea.
Who says the Pentagon leadership learned nothing from Vietnam? They learned how to wage open-ended wars basically forever, which has proved useful indeed when it comes to justifying and sustaining epic military budgets and the political authority that goes with them. But here’s the thing: in a democracy, if you wage war long, you wage it wrong. Athens and the historian Thucydides learned this the hard way in the struggle against Sparta more than two millennia ago. Why do we insist on forgetting such an obvious lesson?
To read more of this dispatch, please click here.
17 thoughts on “Killing Democracy in America”
Regular readers will note repetition in my writing, and that’s partly because I’m a limited person, and partly because I believe I have to keep saying these things, again and again.
It’s a constant battle against pro-war, pro-empire, fear-mongering propaganda, and we have to keep fighting, trying to change societal consciousness one reader at a time …
It’s like we need a vaccine against the virus of violence and greed that supports weapons and war and ends in destruction and death. And we need that vaccine before democracy itself is dead.
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Two observations come to mind here. First is that the endless U.S. wars follow the economic example of supply and demand. The MIC has ginned up “perceived” threats to create a demand for troops and matériel. The entire scenario of perpetual conflict has been set up like a business. Lives lost by troops and civilians represent the kind of “shrinkage” faced by big-box stores: those losses must be kept to acceptable levels in both cases (except the DoD doesn’t care about how many civilians are killed). The question that remains is whether endless demand can be met by endless supply.
Second, in terms of lengthy wars, the Hundred Years’ War is the obvious example. Generations of English and French kings fought to decide the sovereignty of France. Thousands upon thousands of people were born and died who never knew a country NOT on a war footing. Of course, rulers back then simply imposed more taxes to pay for the ongoing battles, without recourse to legislation. In the end, though, nothing concrete was ever accomplished; England couldn’t defeat France, and the rule of each country was merely consolidated. But the same issues recurred in watered-down form for several hundred more years. Arguably, even, until Napoleon’s defeat.
All this to say that history proves the futility of long-drawn-out conflicts based on nothing more than pride and whim. Of course, now we add the carrot of unlimited financial gain for profiteers, which, as you say, is much harder to vaccinate against.
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“now we add the CARROT of unlimited financial gain for the profiteers…” aha! a condign metaphor for sir carrot-head, denise, as is your reference to precluding our being “vaccinated against” the futility of conflicts based on hubris and whimsy. your comments are gorgonizing applications of fresh images to arresting insights.
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Whoa, Jeanie!! “Gorgonizing”? The Language Police are gonna come knocking on your door in the dead of night! Though I confess it HAS occurred to me that the stuff on top of Trump’s head may very well be Medusa-like snakes!
the language police may well object to my spreading the gorgon metaphor w/ too broad a brush when attempting to convey the image of myself as a stunpolled statue comprised of stone rather than flesh. i find denise’s pejorative sobriquets for trump beyond mesmerizing!
hope your retired friends in florida have not contracted the regnant coronavirus now besieging that state… a trump-inspired and desantis-promoted cauchemar.
I imagined “cauchemar” to be Welsh, but dear ol’ Google tells me it’s French for nightmare! I had the pleasure (?) of taking French for six years in school, and still have a decent recall for conversational usage, but cauchemar is one that had gotten away from me!
one of my bantlings has been married to a québeçois fellow for 20 years, and the family, whom we visit on home-leave, lives in la pèche, PQ . tho’ canada is putatively ‘un pays bi-langue’, the native french-speaking canadians are far more adept at communicating in english than vice versa. my french is embarrassingly deficient.
[Pardon us for drifting a bit off topic, Mr. Editor!] I’ve only been to Quebec twice, in late 1970s (and to Alberta once). There was still enough pro-independence sentiment that, outside of cosmopolitan Montreal, English was frowned upon. Rather like the Francophone snobbery the mother country has been accused of at times. I imagine that attitude has mellowed. I have to say, I found Helsinki about the most cosmopolitan city I’ve been to (but I am NOT widely traveled). Basically everyone a tourist came in contact with spoke very good English. In Italy in 1978, my first trip off N. American continent, I think I encountered exactly two–TWO–native Italians who’d own up to knowing English!!
Well done. I don’t mind repetition at all. It might be an ineffectual corrective to the very refusal to see reality and learn proper lessons you observe regarding the Vietnam War, but keeping one’s wits intact when it appears so many others have gone insane may well require such diligent, ongoing reinforcement. The cytokine storm metaphor is much the same idea. We essentially provoked ourselves into a fictitious, circular, inflammatory response and have no apparent means to break the cycle. I would add that this is precisely the problem with ever-increasing technological power and complexity: human institutions eventually become frankly unmanageable and those values that used to sustain us more contentedly are lost amid all the sound and fury.
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An astute observation, Denise! Just as Dick Cheney sent the War Machine against Iraq on the basis of MANUFACTURED (i.e. phony!) intel, the MIC has to continue to manufacture a “justification” for its obscene devouring of resources. “Uh-oh, lookie there! Islamic extremists growing up out of the soil in Chad! Boko Haram in Nigeria! A new crop in Somalia! There they go in Kenya again!” I seem to recall the affair in Chad went rather badly for the US. Politicians pledge “no new taxes” for us–with Big Bizness as prime recipient of kindness, of course–but ultimately there will be a terrible price to pay for ballooning the National Debt at an absolutely unprecedented pace. The current focus of hostility is China, and that won’t end prettily either. It’s simply astonishing that the USA has been able to “kick the can down the road” so many years, delaying the Day of Reckoning. That Day will arrive when foreign nations refuse to purchase any more US Treasury debt. There are sound reasons gold appears on track to breach the $2000 the ounce price.
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Excellent post, Col. Astore. I could almost have penned it myself, but I would of course be much less merciful in describing the USA. T-H-E deadly disease that will bring this empire to its knees I prefer to identify as “American Exceptionalism) (yes, I know you touched on it). The problem we have is of political/class consciousness, that is its absence on the whole. Many, many people who recognize Trump’s absolute wrongness still salute the flag at every opportunity. “What do you mean, we don’t need to squash Islamic Extremism overseas? If we don’t do it there, we’ll be fighting them here.” What a thoroughly brainwashed population! The “communist” nations that have been accused of brainwashing have/had nothing on the US patriotic brainwashing machine! Nowhere even close!! No fricking contest!
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I like the ending you used in the Tom Dispatch version of this article: That “…it’s time to think the unthinkable,” which, “for the U.S. …that would mean (gasp!) peace!”
And, “Such a peace would start with imperial retrenchment: by bringing our troops home; reducing military (and police) budgets; and complete withdrawal from Afghanistan and from any other place associated with our “generational” wars on (of or against?) terror.
The alternative will be a cytokine storm that will, in the end, tear us apart from within. (Which may or may not have also been a Lincoln quote at some point…of which there are so many to choose from.)
supernal insights, all of you invigilators and decriers [denise, greg, brutus, ken, william, etc] of ‘american exceptionalism’s’ self-immolation and diembowelment, which seems to proceed apace.
sir astore, your exegeses could NEVER be considered supererogative; US readership needs your perseverence, patience, and analytical verbigerations. perhaps the feckly semi-literate amongst the buffoons who pass their commentary off as political dialogue, i.e. the MSM troglodytes, will eventually be edified by your erudite and well-researched postings… tho’ i’m likely ‘tipping at windmills’.
if he weren’t suffering from such brainless ineptitude [yes, i refer to the self-appointed “world’s most stable genius” and his sycophantic crwth], i would suggest that the trumpetting dump-trumpsters had deliberately and preveniently subscribed to a policy of domestic population control by whatever nefarious means that might avail themselves to the zeitgeist-moment… in this case, covid~19, economic desuetude for their gormless, evangelical constituents, and bankruptcy for everyone not presently remunerated by the MIC.
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Jeanie, I don’t know your geographic location, but I think the heat may have gotten to you! [attempted humor] It’s as close today to 100 degrees F. as it tends to get where I am. As for tilting at windmills, for myself I reject Quixotesque parallels. That Don of old was a confused old man with rather poor eyesight. The monsters (giant ones!) we’re up against in the current age are far too disturbingly REAL!! [I admit to being an old man myself, with ever-declining eyesight, but I think I see the present political situation quite clearly. A subjective evaluation, of course!]
tnx for your illuminating reply, greglaxer. my husband and i were birthed in 1940 and 1941, respectively, and given i suffer from dyscalculia, presbiophrenia, severe myopia, cataracts, astigmatism, corneal transplants that failed, confusion and other humilitating depredations of senectitude, i gave up trying to calculate our ages ‘ages’ ago. indeed, in matters of confusion i’m quantum leaps ahead of old don Q.
to address your other implied q/curiosity, we retired in ’14 to the sizzling climate of mindoro island in the philippines [john from interntl. devel. as a resource economist; i from env. conserv. as a marine and aquatic invert. zool.]. we are now melting into a soupy goop, despite being situated above the sea on a montane slope. daytime temps hover around 36C, and b/c it’s the rainy season, humidity is 99%. as canadians, we feel enshrouded by a wool blanket saturated w/water. at least we are covid-19~free here, unlike ‘the orange one’s’ demesne [again, tnx denise].
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From Canada to the Philippines, yes, bit of a change there! I have a friend whose Filipina wife insisted they move to Florida from Massachusetts in retirement. I’m sure it was she who chose the new location. Not wishing to appear cruel, I spared my friend any lectures on how terrible a choice I thought that was. I’ll take the snow over what transpires in Florida any old day. Best of luck to you and your hubby in your present domicile!
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