Creator of Bracing Views. Contributor to TomDispatch, Truthout, HNN, Alternet, Huffington Post, Antiwar, and other sites. Retired AF lieutenant colonel and professor of history. Senior fellow, Eisenhower Media Network
Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the House when Ronald Reagan was president in the 1980s, liked the saying, “All politics is local.”
Carl von Clausewitz, the famous Prussian theorist of war in the time of Napoleon, taught that war is the continuation of politics by other (violent) means.
Does it follow from this that all wars are, in a sense, local?
It doesn’t seem so at first glance. Americans tend to see wars like Iraq and Afghanistan as distant events that are disconnected from our daily lives. (Obviously, if a loved one is in the military and deployed overseas, concern and connection are greatly heightened.)
But when we begin to see the local costs of war, fully to see them, the way they poison lives, infect and erode democracy, and compromise the very climate we live in, we may finally act to put a stop to war.
No matter how distant and obscure America’s wars may be (and who among us really knows what’s happening this minute in Somalia, to cite one example), there are effects that are local. And until we calculate those costs, and confront the waste and inhumanity of them, we simply won’t work synergistically to end them.
What are some of these local costs? As President Eisenhower said in his famous “cross of iron” speech, every warship we build, every rocket we fire, every warplane we launch, represents a theft from those who hunger, a theft from projects such as building schools or repairing roads and bridges. Every dollar we spend on war is a dollar we don’t spend here in America on our own sustenance, our own health as a civil society. Meanwhile, the dreadful costs incurred by wasteful wars, which will eventually exceed $8 trillion for the Iraq and Afghan wars, drives up our national debt, which is then cited, rightly or wrongly, as a reason to curb domestic spending. Profligacy for war, austerity for ordinary Americans, seems to be the new American way. And it’s impoverishing our democracy and our civic culture.
Other effects of war would include the costs of aiding veterans who are wounded, whether in body or mind or both, in our local communities. It would include the militarization of local police forces with surplus military weaponry that is then used to suppress legitimate dissent. And, if you’ve lived on or near a military base, you’ve likely experienced noise pollution to go with environmental pollution and degradation, much of it kept classified or otherwise hidden from view.
America’s wars, in short, are never truly distant and disconnected from our lives. They are instead connected to us, shaping our vision of what’s possible and impossible, what’s inevitable and what’s preventable, what’s normal and what’s abnormal.
A state of permanent war is not normal, America. Its effects are all around us and they are not good. But the good news is that, just as the effects of war are local, so too can the fight against war be local. Raise your voice and take a stand against war. If all politics is local, the political fight against war can and should be local too.
Aside from climate change (Armageddon in slow motion) and nuclear war (Armageddon in the blink of an eye), the biggest threat to America is perpetual war and preparations for war driven by threat inflation. We’re witnessing it now, before our very eyes, with America’s increasingly polarized relations with China, notes David Vine in his latest effort for TomDispatch.com. Both parties, Republican and Democratic, accuse the other of being “soft” on China, even as the U.S. “defense” budget (meaning the war and weapons budget) soars with bipartisan support in Congress.
It’s folly, of course, and dangerous folly at that. China has roughly four times as many people as the U.S. and a vibrant economy; China is also a leading trading partner and owner of American debt. China, in short, should be a friend, or friendly rival, or a competitor worthy of respect. What China shouldn’t be in American eyes is a manifestation of a new “Yellow Peril,” an inscrutable foe, a soon-to-be enemy. Anything that tips us in that direction is truly folly, since any war with China could end in nuclear catastrophe. And even if such a catastrophe is avoided, war, even a “cold” one, will destroy any chance for concerted action against climate change, imperiling the very planet we live on.
If we want to avoid Armageddon, whether the one in slow motion or the one in the blink of an eye, the USA needs good relations with China, based again on mutual respect and a cooperative spirit. What should unite us (working to mitigate climate change and reduce the threat of nuclear war) is far more important than what is allegedly dividing us.
But threat inflation works, especially for the military-industrial-congressional complex, to justify colossal war budgets to the American people. Here’s the problem, though: When you inflate the threat, in some way you also create it. You instantiate it, at least in your own mind. You give it more and more substance. And the more weapons you build to meet the threat you created, the more likely it becomes that you’ll choose to use those weapons when push comes to shove — and Americans sure do a lot of shoving in the world.
I just hope the Chinese are wise enough to see that America’s national security state is indeed a big threat — to America. So they’d be wisest to stand back and let America defeat itself with debilitating wars and profligate spending on costly weaponry. Meanwhile, they can use their strong economy to dominate trade. While we build weapons and fight wars, China will defeat us — at capitalism! Ah, the irony, comrade.
Yet even as China wins the new cold war, the planet itself will lose. Anything that distracts humanity from facing climate change together is folly. It may not seem so at this moment, but check back with the planet in 2031. Another decade lost to military folly is another nail in the coffin to efforts at preserving and restoring life on our planet.
So, as David Vine asks in his article, Do you want a new cold war? Anyone with any sense knows that “No!” is the only possible answer.
Few people will be surprised to learn that the U.S. military is about conformity. Uniformity. Heck, it’s one reason why we wear uniforms to begin with. To a certain extent, individuality is tolerated but only if it’s harmless and doesn’t interfere with unit cohesion or performance — and, not just performance but image.
I can’t count the number of times I heard about my Air Force “family” when I wore the uniform, with the message I had to go along to get along; we’re all family, so stop grumbling and enjoy your “family” time.
A heavy stress on conformity can be a particular burden to civilian spouses, however, who didn’t necessarily think they were enlisting when their partner signed up and donned a uniform. In the bad old days, wives of officers were especially burdened with expectations. If they didn’t join officers’ wives’ clubs and otherwise “support” their husbands, they might find themselves ostracized from the “family.” Their husbands might see their careers suffer as well, not exactly a dynamic that promotes family values and amity at home.
Those bad old days are not entirely over, notes Andrea Mazzarino at TomDispatch.com, and being the wife of a U.S. Naval officer, she should know. I urge you to read her article here at TomDispatch. Nowadays, pressure takes new forms, notably on social media, that crazy 24/7/365 world, with email, Instagram, and Facebook posts (among other social sites) being scrutinized incessantly for right-thinking and right behavior, as judged by the self-anointed keepers of conformity and uniformity.
Militaries, again you won’t be surprised to learn, are not known to embrace criticism and non-conformity, which is why they should be kept as small as possible within a democracy that is supposed to celebrate or at least tolerate critiques and eccentrics. But here’s the rub: The more America celebrates its military and feeds it with money. the more it reinforces anti-democratic forces and tendencies within our larger society. And that’s not a good thing in a country where money is speech, i.e. where the richest already rule. (Which is no surprise to military members, as we all know the Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rules.)
Here’s an excerpt from Mazzarino’s article. Believe me, she knows of what she speaks.
Eyes Are Always On You
I know what it means to be watched all too carefully, a phenomenon that’s only grown worse in the war-on-terror years. I’m a strange combination, I suspect, being both a military spouse and an anti-war-on-terror activist. As I’ve discovered, the two sit uncomfortably in what still passes for one life. In this country in these years, having eyes on you has, sadly enough, become a common and widespread phenomenon. When it’s the government doing it, it’s called “surveillance.” When it’s your peers or those above you in the world of the military spouse, there’s no word for it at all.
Now, be patient with me while I start my little exploration of such an American state at the most personal level before moving on to the way in which we now live in ever more of a — yes — surveillance state.
A Navy Wife’s Perspective on Military Life, Post-9/11
“The military sounds like the mafia. Your husband’s rank determines how powerful you are.” That was a good friend’s response, a decade or so ago, when a more experienced Navy wife shamed me for revealing via text message that my husband’s nuclear submarine would soon return to port. Her spouse had been assigned to the same boat for a year longer than mine and she headed up the associated Family Readiness Group, or FRG.
Such FRGs, led by officers’ wives, are all-volunteer outfits that are supposed to support the families of the troops assigned to any boat. In a moment of thoughtless excitement, I had indeed texted another spouse, offering a hand in celebrating our husbands’ imminent return, the sort of party that, as the same woman had told me, “All wives help with to thank our guys for what they do for us. It’s key to command morale.”
She had described the signs other wives had been making under the direction of both the captain’s wife’s and hers, as well as the phone chain they had set up to let us know the moment the boat would arrive so that we could rush to the base to greet it. In response to my message, she’d replied in visibly angry form (that is, in all capital letters), “NEVER, EVER INDICATE IN ANY WAY OVER TEXT THAT THE BOAT WILL BE RETURNING SOON. YOU ARE ENDANGERING THEIR LIVES.” She added that I would be excluded from all boat activities if I ever again so much as hinted that such a return was imminent.
Alone in my apartment in a sparsely populated town near the local military base, my heart raced with the threat of further isolation. What would happen because of what I’d done?
And yes, I’d blundered, but not, as became apparent to me, in any way that truly mattered or actually endangered anything or anyone at all — nothing, in other words, that couldn’t have been dealt with in a kinder, less Orwellian fashion, given that this was a supposedly volunteer group.
It was my first little introduction to being watched and the pressure that goes with such surveillance in the world of the military spouse. Years later, when my husband was assigned to another submarine, an officer’s wife at the same naval base had burst into tears telling me about the surprise visit she’d just been paid by three women married to officers of higher rank on other boats stationed at that base.
Sitting across from her in their designer dresses, they insisted she wasn’t doing enough to raise raffle money to pay for a military child’s future education. Am I really responsible for sending another kid to college? That was her desperate question to me. Unable to keep a job, given her husband’s multiple reassignments, she had struggled simply to save enough for the education of her own children. And mind you, she was already providing weekly free childcare to fellow spouses unable to locate affordable services in that town, while counseling some wives who had become suicidal during their husbands’ long deployments.
I could, of course, multiply such examples, but you get the idea. In the war-on-terror-era military, eyes are always on you.
Married to the Military (or the Terror Within)
On paper, the American military strives to “recognize the support and sacrifice” of the 2.6 million spouses and children of active-duty troops. And there are indeed gestures in the right direction — from partnerships with employers who have committed to hiring military spouses to short-term-crisis mental-health support.
Today I saw a “support our troops” magnetic ribbon on a pickup truck. I used to see more of them, especially in the Bush/Cheney years of the Afghan and Iraq Wars. I don’t oppose the sentiment, though the “support” it encourages is undefined. I’ve always thought the best way to “support” our troops is to keep them out of unnecessary and disastrous wars. Even to bring them home, not only from these wars but from imperial outposts around the globe. But, again, “support” on these ribbons is unspecified, though the Pentagon seems to equate it with huge budgets that approach a trillion dollars every year.
Americans continue to profess confidence in “their” military, with 69% of us saying so in July 2021, whereas only 12% of us have much confidence in Congress. Can it be said we hold Congress in contempt? Americans know, I think, that Congress is bought and paid for, that it answers to the rich and the strong while dismissing the poor and the weak. If you’re looking for affordable health care, for higher pay, for fair treatment, best not look to Congress.
Indeed, if you want a $15 minimum wage, free government health care, and a government-funded college education, your only option is to enlist in the U.S. military. These “socialist” programs are a big part of the military, including government-provided housing as well. Yet we don’t think of them as socialistic when the person getting these benefits is wearing a military uniform.
It’s truly remarkable that despite disastrous wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere, Americans continue to “support” and have great confidence in “our troops.” There are many reasons for this. I think most Americans recognize now that the wars our troops are sent to are losing concerns from the get-go. You really can’t blame the troops for failing to win unwinnable wars. You can, and should, blame the leaders for lying us into these wars and then lying again and again about (false) progress in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. But the troops who bleed on the frontlines? No – we sense it’s not their fault.
I think many Americans also support our troops out of guilt and ignorance. Most Americans are isolated from the military and therefore have little understanding of its ways and even less understanding of its wars. Less than 1% of Americans currently serve in the military, plus there’s no draft, so young Americans can safely ignore, so they think, the discomforts and potential perils of a few years spent within the ranks. After a flurry of attention paid to a humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan, the mainstream media is back to saluting the troops while warning of potential conflicts elsewhere, perhaps with China over Taiwan.
The disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq, among others, are already being sent down the Memory Hole to oblivion. After all, there’s always another war looming, so we’re told, which serves to convince most Americans that a strong “defense” is needed. So why not support our troops. We’re going to need them to fight the next war, right?
This is precisely how we fail to support our troops. We don’t ask enough tough questions – and we don’t demand enough honest answers – about why the next war is necessary. How it serves national defense and the ideals of the U.S. Constitution. We are always pressured to salute smartly, even if we’ve never served in the military. And that way lies militaristic madness.
So, if I had to define how best to support our troops, I’d answer with another bumper sticker motto: Question Authority. Especially when it’s wrapped in the flag and camouflaged by a military uniform.
It’s folly in the extreme that Americans routinely acquiesce to Pentagon “defense” budgets – let’s face it, these are war budgets — that consume more than half of federal discretionary spending each year, even as the Pentagon loses wars and fails audits. Nevertheless, our very unpopular Congress continues to throw money at the generals and admirals and war contractors, and indeed these groups are often interchangeable, as many senior officers join corporate “defense” boards after retiring from the military.
It’s not Private Jones (or A1C Wagner, pictured above) who’s cashing in here. It’s America’s military-industrial-congressional complex, which is guided and motivated by one word: more. More money, more power, and, often enough, more wars.
If we keep “supporting” our troops while funneling vast and unaccountable funds to the Pentagon and the weapons makers, America will get more weapons and more wars. It’s that simple. And more weapons and more wars will combine to destroy what little is left of our democracy, no matter how many “support our troops” ribbons we stick to our pickup trucks.
Do you really want to support our troops? Besides questioning authority, one might best begin by reducing their numbers. America’s military should be no larger than what it needs to be to provide for a robust national defense. Then we need to remember that a state of permanent war represents a death blow to democracy, no matter how much we profess confidence in our troops. Since Congress is already deeply unpopular, it should have the guts to cut and limit military and war spending to no more than 25% of federal discretionary spending.
Cutting funds to the military-industrial complex will help bring it to heel – and force more than few spoiled and hidebound generals and admirals to bring our troops home rather than wasting them in faraway countries fighting unwinnable conflicts.
What say you, America? Ready to support our troops?
Did you know Vice President Kamala Harris is Chairwoman of the National Space Council? I didn’t — until a friend notified me of a feel-good video featuring Harris and a few earnest and photogenic kids on YouTube. The kids were decidedly diverse: boys and girls, black and brown and white, but they all had something in common. No, it wasn’t their enthusiasm for space — it’s that they were all paid actors.
As my wife and I watched the video, my better half turned to me and said, “stagey” and “fake.”
I had to laugh as Kamala Harris tried to wow the kids about seeing craters on the moon. My goodness — on a clear night you can see craters with the naked eye. A decent pair of binoculars (I have 10×50 Tasco binoculars) will reveal plenty of gorgeous detail. You don’t exactly have to visit the Naval Observatory to see moon craters.
Even through my relatively cheap $200 camera, I can see plenty of detail. Here’s a photo I took of the moon, a handheld shot done quickly and inexpertly:
I have some experience talking to real kids about astronomy. Elementary school kids can be fun. One class I talked to wanted to know all about UFOs. Another wiseguy kid asked about Uranus, pronouncing it “your anus,” of course. I smiled, quietly corrected his pronunciation, and answered his question. We both had a laugh.
Yet apparently Kamala Harris is not to be trusted talking to real kids who might go off-script. Perish the thought of a kid who might make a joke about Uranus. The horror! It doesn’t inspire confidence that she’s only a heartbeat away from the presidency, as the saying goes.
If and when the space aliens come for me, I know what I’m saying: Take me to your leader — mine is lost in space.
In the movie “Network” from 1976, a TV news anchor played by Peter Finch builds a mass following by promising to kill himself on the air while declaring that “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore!” The network execs are all too happy to encourage him – as long as his outrage is good for ratings and doesn’t threaten the system. But when Finch starts to step on corporate agendas, he has the riot act read to him by Ned Beatty, who explains “There is no America. There is no democracy” and that “The world is a college of corporations.” A visibly shaken Finch realizes he’s in over his head.
I’ve always liked that catchphrase from the movie, for we the people should be as mad as hell, and we should refuse to take it. We should act. But what’s interesting is how our anger is redirected before we can act.
We’re not supposed to be mad at the oligarchs – that “college of corporations” – who own it all and who push all the buttons. No — our anger is supposed to be tribal. We’re supposed to hate Republicans, or Democrats, or anti-vaxxers, or Trump supporters, or someone — someone ultimately like us, without much power. The anger is ginned up to encourage us to punch down while keeping us disunited.
Being mad can be good if the anger is channeled against the exploiters; it’s not good when it’s exploited by the powerful to keep us divided and weak.
America’s two-party system is designed to deflect anger away from the moneyed interests and toward each other. What we need is a new political party that truly represents the people rather than the oligarchs. Neither major party, Republican or Democrat, seems reformable. Both are captured by moneyed interests. After all, if money is speech, who can yell louder: you and me, or Lockheed Martin and Amazon? Even the “anti-establishment” voices in either major party have largely been neutralized. Or they get sicced on the enemy of the day, whether it’s evil woke Democrats or evil unwoke Trumpers.
Hence nothing really changes … and that’s the point.
America needs an anti-imperial party, a “Come home, America” party, a party that puts domestic needs first as it works to downsize the military and dismantle the empire. Yet, in the spirit of Orwell’s 1984 and the Two Minutes’ Hate, Americans are always kept hating some putative enemy. Russia! Radical Islamic Terror! China! Immigrants at the gate! Maybe even an enemy within. We’re kept divided, distracted — and downtrodden
If we continue to be at war with each other while punching down, we’ll never turn righteous anger against the right people. We’ll never effect meaningful change.
It’s said that power never concedes anything without a demand. Why do we demand so much from the powerless and so little from the powerful? Isn’t it high time we reversed that?
My dad was a skeptic. He taught me the saying, never believe anything you read, and only half of what you see. Sound advice in this heavily propagandized world of ours.
Despite my dad’s skepticism, I eventually earned a doctorate in history and wrote books in which I pretended to know what was going on in the past. Or, that’s the way my dad would have put it. To my claims he would sometimes say, “Were you there, Charlie?” In other words, if you weren’t a direct witness to the event in question, how can you say what really happened? In fact, even if you did witness it, are you sure of what you saw or heard or sensed? Our senses can be unreliable for all sorts of reasons, such as fatigue, bias, distractions, and so on.
How do we know what we know? Can we ascertain truth? “Truth — what is truth?” Pontius Pilate asked Christ. Small wonder that so many people seek truth through religion when there’s so little of it available in non-religious realms. (Of course, religion operates on faith, not on truth per se, though those who believe see faith as a way to truth, perhaps as a form of truth.)
I think the most “true” thing in my life, the thing I doubt least of all, is the love of my closest friends and family. Once again, my dad had something to say here. He believed that you’d be lucky to have a handful of friends in your life who truly cared about you, who’d be there for you no matter what, who’d take a bullet for you, as my dad put it. And, let’s face it: not many Facebook “friends” fit my dad’s definition here!
So, I suppose my dad taught me to question received “truths” and also to ponder what real friendship is all about. The latter shouldn’t be easy; it’s not a trivial matter of clicking “friend” on a social media site. Friends are there for you, my dad explained, they are sympathetic, they are sacrificial, because in some sense they love you.
Which leads me back to Christ, friend of humanity, who was sympathetic to our human plight in all its zaniness and sordidness and who nevertheless sacrificed himself for us. How many of us think of Christ as the Ultimate Friend? For that’s what he was and is, if you believe in him.
I was raised Catholic by my dad (my mom didn’t go to church, but that’s another story). My dad, the radical skeptic, had faith in the Church and in Christ. I have no faith in the Church, sadly, but I do have faith in Christ and his teachings, which to me show us a path toward the truth in the form of a better life, a more compassionate and generous one.
Today, we find ourselves immersed in a matrix of lies, or “alternative truths” if you prefer. My dad had, I think, the way out. He taught me not to believe too easily, not to be glib, even as he showed me through his own example what living a life of value was about.
Be radically skeptical, yes. But believe in what is right; seek truth and recognize its demands on you. (Truth is rarely easy, especially truth about oneself.) And then manifest it as best you can.
It’s a tall order, dad, and I still have a long way to go. We all do, for it’s really all about the quest, not the destination. Seek and ye shall find are words that comfort me. Surely I heard them first standing next to my dad in church, listening to the gospel, the good news, the teachings of Christ.
But no man, no church, no entity has a monopoly on truth. It can be found in other religions and outside of religion. It can be found within and without. All I know — or think I know — is that it won’t be easy. But what of value is?
On “Two Minutes to Midnight,” I talk about some of the themes I’ve developed at this site. Produced by Catalysta, the idea behind the series is to encourage fresh thinking on the challenges confronting us in a rapidly changing world.
In this interview, I explain how and why America spends way too much on weaponry and wars, and how we can shift the narrative and revive the idea of peace. Echoing George McGovern, it’s time to “come home, America,” to invest in our country and ourselves, rather than to fund more weaponry and more overseas wars.
Near the end of the video, I make an appeal to younger generations of America to lift their voices against the military-industrial-Congressional complex. I urge them not to be intimidated and to speak their mind, explaining that many veterans are just as fed up as they are. Collectively, we need to act. And perhaps the first and most critical step is getting big corporate money out of politics even as we work to make major cuts to the U.S. war budget.
Special thanks to Edward Goldberg at Catalysta.net for inviting me and offering me a chance to share my views with a wider audience.
As a new movie version of Dune is released, it’s a good time to be reminded of Frank Herbert’s wise saying that fear is the mind-killer.
Americans are kept constantly in a state of fear, or at least of high anxiety (a Mel Brooks movie, if memory serves), and that fear or anxiety makes us open and responsive to claims the Pentagon must have more weapons, more authority, and always more money, justified in the name of keeping us safe, whether from “terror” or from China (echoes of the old “Yellow Peril”) or from some other threat just beyond the horizon.
How is it that the world’s most militarily powerful empire is always so fearful? And always needs more weaponry for “security”? Perhaps it’s precisely because fear helps to stifle critical thinking? And because we think of weaponry as job-creators instead of life-takers?
I talk about this and other subjects with Burt Cohen on his podcast, “Keeping Democracy Alive.” Even Yoda makes an early appearance! To listen, please click on the link below.
What do whistleblowers do? Some might say they speak truth to power. But power already knows the truth, indeed the powerful manufacture the truth, and they like their near-monopoly on truth and its creation and distribution.
What whistleblowers really do is speak truth to the powerless. They speak truth to us, and their version of the truth is one that reveals the manipulation and mendacity of the powerful. It exposes power to the light, revealing the rot, the greed, the lies, and for this act of defiance and of patriotism, the whistleblower must be punished.
Snowden was forced into exile in Russia. Hale was recently imprisoned for up to four years. Manning spent years in prison under humiliating conditions that included solitary confinement. Assange is still in prison, and the U.S. government still seeks to extradite him and punish him under an espionage act that shouldn’t even apply to a citizen of another country (not to mention a journalist who should be protected in a democracy that allegedly reveres the freedom of the press).
It’s not that the American people can’t handle the truth, to cite the words of Colonel Jessup as played by Jack Nicholson. It’s that the American people can handle the truth, that the truth would empower us while weakening the powers-that-be and their various plots and privileges. That’s why the truth is such a scarce commodity in Washington, D.C. It must be guarded while being massaged and manipulated before its fed to the masses as formless, often truthless, pabulum.
America’s punishment of principled whistleblowers is yet another sign of the death of democracy in America. If President Biden wanted to do something important, something inspiring, something meaningful, he’d permit Snowden to return with no charges, he’d pardon Hale, and he’d stop pursuing the extradition of Assange. But Biden will do none of these. Whistleblowers must be persecuted, must be punished, not because they’ve done something wrong, but because they’ve done something right, something that embarrasses the powerful. And that simply cannot be tolerated.
After all, if Americans in positions to know start speaking the truth to their fellow Americans, where will that end? We might see a resurgence of accountability, of justice, even of democracy in America. And we can’t have that.
Addendum: For a terrific book on whistleblowing that will make you angry indeed, check out Tom Mueller’s “Crisis of Conscience: Whistleblowing In An Age of Fraud” (New York, Riverhead Books, 2019).