America’s Militarized Profession of Faith

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The Church of the Pentagon

W.J. Astore

I grew up in the Catholic Church, where I professed my faith weekly at every mass I attended.  I also grew up a fan of the U.S. military, even as I read many books critical of its performance in the Vietnam War.  Thankfully, I didn’t have to profess my faith in that military, but if I had, what would such a “profession” have looked like?  This is the subject of my latest article at TomDispatch.com, which you can read about here.

Here’s what I believe America’s profession of faith would look like at this moment in our militarized history:

* We believe in wars. We may no longer believe in formal declarations of war (not since December 1941 has Congress made one in our name), but that sure hasn’t stopped us from waging them. From Korea to Vietnam, Afghanistan to Iraq, the Cold War to the War on Terror, and so many military interventions in between, including Grenada, Panama, and Somalia, Americans are always fighting somewhere as if we saw great utility in thumbing our noses at the Prince of Peace. (That’s Jesus Christ, if I remember my Catholic catechism correctly.)

* We believe in weaponry, the more expensive the better. The underperforming F-35 stealth fighter may cost $1.45 trillion over its lifetime. An updated nuclear triad (land-based missiles, nuclear submarines, and strategic bombers) may cost that already mentioned $1.7 trillion. New (and malfunctioning) aircraft carriers cost us more than $10 billion each. And all such weaponry requests get funded, with few questions asked, despite a history of their redundancy, ridiculously high price, regular cost overruns, and mediocre performance. Meanwhile, Americans squabble bitterly over a few hundred million dollars for the arts and humanities.

* We believe in weapons of mass destruction. We believe in them so strongly that we’re jealous of anyone nibbling at our near monopoly. As a result, we work overtime to ensure that infidels and atheists (that is, the Iranians and North Koreans, among others) don’t get them. In historical terms, no country has devoted more research or money to deadly nuclear, biological, and chemical weaponry than the United States. In that sense, we’ve truly put our money where our mouths are (and where a devastating future might be).

* We believe with missionary zeal in our military and seek to establish our “faith” everywhere. Hence, our global network of perhaps 800 overseas military bases. We don’t hesitate to deploy our elite missionaries, our equivalent to the Jesuits, the Special Operations forces to more than 130 countries annually. Similarly, the foundation for what we like to call foreign assistance is often military training and foreign military sales. Our present supreme leader, Pope Trump I, boasts of military sales across the globe, most notably to the infidel Saudis. Even when Congress makes what, until recently, was the rarest of attempts to rein in this deadly trade in arms, Pope Trump vetoes it. His rationale: weapons and profits should rule all.

* We believe in our college of cardinals, otherwise known as America’s generals and admirals. We sometimes appoint them (or anoint them?) to the highest positions in the land. While Trump’s generals — Michael Flynn, James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, and John Kelly — have fallen from grace at the White House, America’s generals and admirals continue to rule globally. They inhabit proconsul-like positions in sweeping geographical commands that (at least theoretically) cover the planet and similarly lead commands aimed at dominating the digital-computer realm and special operations. One of them will head a new force meant to dominate space through time eternal. A “strategic” command (the successor to the Strategic Air Command, or SAC, so memorably satirized in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove) continues to ensure that, at some future moment, the U.S. will be able to commit mass genocide by quite literally destroying the world with nuclear weapons. Indeed, Pope Trump recently boasted that he could end America’s Afghan War in a week, apparently through the mass nuclear genocide of (his figure) 10 million Afghans. Even as he then blandly dismissed the idea of wiping that country “off the face of the earth,” he openly reflected the more private megalomania of those military professionals funded by the rest of us to think about “the unthinkable.” In sum, everything is — theoretically at least — under the thumbs of our unelected college of cardinals. Their overblown term for it is “full-spectrum dominance,” which, in translation, means they grant themselves god-like powers over our lives and that of our planet (though the largely undefeated enemies in their various wars don’t seem to have acknowledged this reality).

* We believe that freedom comes through obedience. Those who break ranks from our militarized church and protest, like Chelsea Manning, are treated as heretics and literally tortured.

* We believe military spending brings wealth and jobs galore, even when it measurably doesn’t. Military production is both increasingly automated and increasingly outsourced, leading to far fewer good-paying American jobs compared to spending on education, infrastructure repairs of and improvements in roads, bridges, levees, and the like, or just about anything else for that matter.

* We believe, and our most senior leaders profess to believe, that our military represents the very best of us, that we have the “finest” one in human history.

* We believe in planning for a future marked by endless wars, whether against terrorism or “godless” states like China and Russia, which means our military church must be forever strengthened in the cause of winning ultimate victory.

* Finally, we believe our religion is the one true faith. (Just as I used to be taught that the Catholic Church was the one true church and that salvation outside it was unattainable.) More pacific “religions” are dismissed as weak, misguided, and exploitative. Consider, for example, the denunciation of NATO countries that refuse to spend more money on their militaries. Such a path to the future is heretical; therefore, they must be punished.

Please read the rest of my article here at TomDispatch.com.  And please comment.  Did I miss anything in my version of America’s militarized profession of faith?

Monday Musings About America

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It’s an odd thing to see a pagan warrior of ancient Greece used as a symbol of Christianity, but what matters here is the idea Christianity is synonymous with warrior violence

W.J. Astore

It’s amazing how often America’s politicians dismiss proposals that would benefit workers as “too expensive” (such as a higher minimum wage, or more affordable college education, or single-payer health care) versus how much they’re willing to approve for new weapons and wars.  With little debate, this year’s “defense” budget will be roughly $750 billion, although the real number exceeds a trillion dollars, as Bill Hartung notes here for TomDispatch.  Meanwhile, spending on education, infrastructure improvements, and so on withers.

It’s almost as if the impoverishment of America’s workers is deliberate (some would say it is).  Four decades ago, I remember reading Crane Brinton’s “The Anatomy of Revolution” in AP Modern European History.  Brinton noted how rising expectations among the lower orders can lead to revolutionary fervor.  But if you keep people down, keep them busy working two or three jobs, keep them distracted with “circuses” like unending sports coverage and Trump’s every twitch and tweet, you can control them.

Thus the establishment sees a true populist politician like Bernie Sanders as the real enemy.  Bernie raises hopes; he wants to help workers; but that’s not the point of the American system.  So, Bernie must be dismissed as “crazy,” or marginalized as a dangerous socialist, even though he’s just an old-fashioned New Dealer who wants government to work for the people.

Related to keeping people under control (by keeping them divided, distracted, and downtrodden) is to keep them fearful.  A foreign bogeyman is always helpful here, hence the demonization of Vladimir Putin.  An old friend of mine sent me an article this past weekend about Putin’s strategy in reviving Russia.  I confess I don’t follow Russia and Putin that closely.  But it strikes me that Putin has played a weak hand well, whereas U.S. leaders have played a strong hand poorly.

In the article I noted the following quote by Putin:

[we] need to build our home and make it strong and well protected … The wolf knows how to eat … and is not about to listen to anyone … How quickly all the pathos of the need to fight for human rights and democracy is laid aside the moment the need to realize one’s own interests come to the fore.

Putin’s words are from a decade ago, when the U.S. still talked about fighting for “human rights and democracy.”  Under Trump, “one’s own interests” are naked again in U.S. foreign policy under men like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo.  Is this progress?

Overall, Russia has learned (or been forced) to limit its foreign burdens, whereas the U.S. is continuing to expand its “global reach.”  Russia learned from the Cold War and is spending far less on its military, whereas the U.S. continues to spend more and more.  It’s ironic indeed if Russia is the country cashing in on its peace dividend, even as the U.S. still seems to believe that peace is impossible and that war pays.

I wonder if Russia (joined by China) spends just enough on its military to present a threat to the U.S. for those who are so eager to see and exaggerate it.  For example, China builds an aircraft carrier, or Russia builds a nuclear cruise missile, not because they’re planning unprovoked attacks against the U.S., but as a stimulus to America’s military-industrial complex.  Because America’s reaction is always eminently predictable.  The national security state seizes on any move by China or Russia as dangerous, destabilizing, and as justification for yet more military spending.  The result is a hollowing out of the U.S. (poorer education, fewer factories, weaker economy, collapsing infrastructure), even as China and Russia grow comparatively stronger by spending more money in non-military sectors.

There are complicated forces at work here.  Of course, Ike’s military-industrial-Congressional complex is always involved.  But there’s also a weird addiction to militarism and violence in the USA.  War, gun violence, and other forms of killing have become the background noise to our lives, so much so that we barely perceive the latest mass killing, or the latest overseas bombing gone wrong.  (I’d also add here the violence we’re doing to our environment, our earth, our true “homeland.”)

I mentioned violence to my old friend, and he sent me this note:

On violence and American cultural DNA one place to start is Richard Slotkin’s trilogy, Regeneration Through Violence, The Fatal Environment, and Gunfighter Nation… The gist of what I have gotten about Slotkin’s thesis is that America’s frontier past trained settlers to think of violence (against natives and against each other) as forms of rebirth both for the individual and for the community.

My friend’s comment about violence and rebirth made me think of the film “Birth of a Nation” (1915) and the infamous scene of the KKK riding to the rescue.  We in America have this notion that, in one form or another, a heavily armed cavalry will ride to the rescue and save us (from savage Indians, violent immigrants, etc.).  In a strange way, Trump’s campaign tapped this notion of rebirth through violence.  Think of his threats against immigrants – and his promises to build a wall to keep them out – and his threats to torture terrorists and even to kill their families.

Trump tapped a rich seam of redemption through violence in the USA, this yearning for some sort of violent apocalypse followed by a “second coming,” notably in conservative evangelical circles.  For when you look at “end times” scenarios in evangelical settings, peaceful bliss is not the focus.  Suffering of the unredeemed is what it’s all about.  Christ is not bringing peace but a sword to smite all the evildoers.

For people who suffer toil and trouble daily, such apocalyptic visions are a powerful distraction and may serve as a potent reactionary tonic.  Why fight for Bernie’s political revolution when Christ’s return is imminent?

That’s enough musing for one Monday morning.  Readers, what say you?

Seminary Rules for Students while on Vacation

W.J. Astore

Many years ago, I came across a brief (four-page) pamphlet of rules for seminarians while on vacation.  I found it in an old book while doing research on Catholic reactions to science in the 19th century.  The pamphlet refers to students at St. Charles College of the Petit Seminaire (minor seminary) of St. Sulpice.  St. Charles opened in 1848 in Maryland but was largely destroyed by fire in 1911.

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There’s no date on the pamphlet.  I was researching in books mainly from the 1850s and 1860s, so perhaps this is the best estimate for when this pamphlet was printed.  It’s a fragile and interesting piece of Catholic history, so I thought I’d post the text here for other researchers, and for people who might be curious about the rules Catholic seminarians were expected to follow when they left the seminary on “vacation.”  The text below shows a life of discipline that didn’t end when the student left the seminary; indeed, in the “wilderness” of real life, seminarians were warned to be on their guard as well as on their best behavior.

Manner of Spending the Vacation for the Students of St. Charles’ College, Petit Séminaire of St. Sulpice.

Daily Exercises.

Morning.

  1. Have a fixed hour of rising, never later than six o’clock; Morning Prayer; Meditation for a quarter of an hour at least, from some edifying book.
  2. Mass, if possible, every day.
  3. During the forenoon, the Little Hours of the Office of the Blessed Virgin.
  4. An hour or two of serious Study, according to the advice of your director.

Afternoon.

  1. Read a Chapter of the New Testament before dinner, and make the Particular examen on the Virtue which you have proposed to yourself to acquire. Never be ashamed to say Grace before and after meals.
  2. Vespers and Complins. Pay a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, if the Church is not too distant.
  3. Recite Matins and Lauds either in the Church or whilst taking a walk; Beads; Spiritual Reading.
  4. Evening Prayers and Examination of Conscience. Retire to bed, as much as possible, at a fixed hour; and prepare the subject of meditation for the following day.

Weekly Exercises.

  1. Receive the Sacraments as often as in the Seminary. Their assistance is much more needed in the world. Have the same zeal for communion as when in the Seminary.
  2. On Sundays and Festivals assist in surplice with gravity and piety at the office of the Parish. If your services are required to serve Mass, do so in a pious and edifying manner. Do not speak in the sacristy without necessity; and then in a few words, and with a low voice.
  3. Show great respect for your Parish Priest; great deference for his salutary admonitions; and entire willingness to assist him, should he require your services. Seek the society of Ecclesiastics.

What is to be Observed.

Towards God.

The Religious duties prescribed above, in the Daily and Weekly Exercises. Habitual recourse to the Blessed Virgin, as Special Protectress of the Vacation. Fidelity to the laws of the Church.

Towards the Neighbor.

Towards All—Charity; Condescension; Politeness.

Towards Parents—Docility; Forwardness to oblige them; the most affectionate Respect.

Towards Brothers, Sisters, and Relatives—Be among them as an angel of peace.

Towards Strangers—Discretion; Reserve; Circumspection with the young; Avoid too great familiarity. If you can, do something for the poor.

Towards Oneself.

Modesty; Simplicity; Avoid every appearance of haughtiness. In moments of difficulty have recourse to God and to the Blessed Virgin. Keep a strict guard over yourself, especially in the company of persons of a different sex. Moderate your curiosity. Avoid noisy conversation, loud laughter, and every thing contrary to clerical modesty. Before setting out on a journey say the “Itinerarium.”

What is to be Avoided.

  1. Be on your guard against Human Respect, and even sometimes against the improper counsels of your relatives. Hence you should show yourself from the beginning of the vacation to be such as God requires, and as you have promised to be.
  2. Avoid Idleness, the source of temptation and dangerous to all, but particularly to youth. In the beginning and at the end of the vacation, abstain from serious studies; those days should be spent in exercises of piety.
  3. Be not discouraged after a first fault. Should you neglect any of your duties, resolve to do better; and apply with new zeal to fulfill them. Should you be so unhappy as to fall into sin, go and confess immediately.
  4. Avoid—with extreme caution—bad company, dangerous reading, worldly entertainments and parties in which one is exposed to see, hear, or do what might wound conscience.
  5. Be resolute in refusing to be treated with better fare than is usual in the family, or with other attentions always out of place, which parents think themselves bound to show a son who is an ecclesiastic. Avoid spending some days at the home of a fellow seminarian, whose parents might be inconvenienced by your stay.
  6. Avoid, as well as in private as in public, all vanity and worldliness in dress, gesture, gait or conversation.

Review these rules occasionally by way of spiritual reading.

J.M.J. (Jesus, Mary, Joseph)

The Power of Hate and Fear

yoda22

W.J. Astore

Who are we supposed to hate today?  The Russians for allegedly throwing the presidential election?  The Chinese for allegedly stealing our jobs?  The North Koreans for allegedly planning our nuclear destruction?  The Iranians for allegedly working to acquire nuclear weapons?  The “axis of evil” for being, well, evil?

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously told Americans that the only thing they had to fear is fear itself.  However, recent American presidents have encouraged us to fear everything.  Let’s not forget the stoking of fear by people like Condoleezza Rice and her image of a smoking gun morphing into a nuclear mushroom cloud.  That image helped to propel America into a disastrous war in Iraq in 2003 that festers still.

One of the most powerful scenes I’ve seen in any movie came in the adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984.  The film version begins with the “two minutes of hate” directed against various (imagined) enemies.  Check it out.  Doubleplusgood!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0KeX5OZr0A4

Especially disturbing is the rant against Goldstein, the enemy within.  Here I think of Donald Trump claiming that the Democrats are anti-military for not rubberstamping his budget, a dishonest as well as ridiculous charge, since both parties support high military spending.  Indeed, high Pentagon spending is the one bipartisan area of agreement in Congress.

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The top tweet is typical of Trump: Accusing Democrats of not caring about “our” troops

This is among the biggest problems in America today: the stoking of hate against the enemy within, e.g. “illegal” immigrants (rapists, gang members, killers, according to our president), Democrats who allegedly don’t support our military, rival politicians who should be “locked up,” protesters who should be punched and kicked and otherwise silenced, high school students who are dismissed as phonies and professional actors, and on and on.

Irrational fear is nothing new to America, of course.  Consider the fear of communism that produced red scares after World Wars I and II.  Consider how fears of the spread of communism led to criminal intervention in Southeast Asia and the death of millions of people there.  Massive bombing, free-fire artillery zones, the profligate use of defoliants like Agent Orange, the prolongation of war without any regard for the suffering of peoples in SE Asia: that behavior constituted a crime of murderous intensity that was in part driven by hatred and fear.

And when hatred and fear are linked to tribalism and a xenophobic form of patriotism, murderous war becomes almost a certainty.  When the zealots of hate are screaming for blood, it’s very hard to hear appeals for peace based on compassion and reason.

Anger, fear, aggression: that way leads to the dark side, as Yoda, that Jedi master, warned us.  Hate too, Yoda says, must be resisted, lest one be consumed by it.  Sure, he’s just an imaginary character in the “Star Wars” universe, but that doesn’t negate the truth of his message.

God is love, the Christian religion says.  Why then are we so open to hate and fear?

Islamophobia in the Trump Administration

CAMPAIGN-MUSLIMSOLDIER
Let us remember the service and sacrifice of Muslim-Americans

W.J. Astore

Lately, Ben Carson at Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has been criticized in the news for wanting taxpayers to fund a dining set that costs $31,000.  (He’s tried to shift the blame to his wife.)  We seem to forget a far more disturbing aspect of Carson’s behavior: his Islamophobia.  Remember his anti-Muslim comments as a presidential candidate?  Remember he said that no Muslim-American should ever serve as president?

Back then, I heard from a fellow Air Force officer, a Muslim-American, originally from Iraq, who served proudly in our armed forces.  He said Ben Carson’s comment brought him to tears — that a candidate for a major political party would insist on a religious test that would bar all Muslims from serving this country as president.

Yet for his Islamophobic position, which was contrary to the U.S. Constitution that forbids any religious test for political office, Ben Carson was rewarded by the Trump administration and appointed Secretary at HUD.

Don’t focus on his pricey dining set, America: Focus on his ignorance and his prejudice against millions of patriotic Americans, who just happen to be Muslim.  And remember how he was rewarded for this.

This episode came back to me when I read TomDispatch today.  A U.S. Navy veteran, Nate Terani, recalls his own personal nightmares of being targeted as a Muslim-American by a Trump administration that leans increasingly toward Islamophobia.  As Tom Engelhardt notes in his introduction to Terani’s article, Trump has “tapped the [CIA’s] previous director, Mike Pompeo, a notorious Tea Party Islamophobe and Iranophobe, to replace Twitter-fired Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. Now, another key post is evidently about to be up for grabs. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster is reportedly almost out the door as the president openly considers a replacement for him, possibly former Bush-era ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton. He’s another major Iranophobe, who has called for launching military operations against that country for years … [Combine this with] the potential return of torture, the possible refilling of Guantanamo with new prisoners, the intensification of war across the Greater Middle East with a new focus on Iran, and the entrenchment of particularly extreme forms of Islamophobia” and you truly have a recipe for a nightmarish America.

There is no room in America for prejudice based on religious belief (or lack thereof).  Religious wars are nightmares of our past; we must not allow the haters to bring them back into our present or our future.

The American Religion of War

moab
The Holy Mother of All Bombs?

A few thoughts on violence and military idolatry in America

W.J. Astore

If you believe the polls, America is a nation of believers.  A nation of faith.  But is our faith truly in a pacific god of love?  Or do we instead worship a god of war?  Current and past events suggest that too often Americans place their faith in war and the military.  We continue to believe despite the evidence our belief is both wrongheaded and destructive.

We have a cult-like affection for war and the military.  It drives what we see — what we perceive.  Believing is seeing.  The military confesses to believe in “progress” in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, so we invent metrics that show how we’re winning (which is exactly what we did fifty years ago in Vietnam).

We are not a rational society.  We are a faith-based society.  And our temples and crosses are military bases and weaponry, which we export globally.  The U.S. has 800 overseas bases, and America dominates the international trade in arms.  Meanwhile, our missionaries are our Special Ops troops, which we send to 130 countries, spreading the American gospel.  The gospel of war and the gun.

The icons of American militarism are our weapons. Our warplanes, our drones, big bombs (the MOAB), the list goes on. They have become the iconic symbols of an idolatry of destruction.

A xenophobic form of patriotism exacerbates a religion of violence.  Exclusive rather than inclusive, it sets the boundaries of “us” versus “them.”  Critics and dissenters are cast out and exiled.

Meanwhile, in far-off foreign lands, we reject the reality of ruins and rubble.  We couch it instead in terms of salvation: “we had to destroy the village to save it.”  It’s another aspect of our evangelical approach to war.  It’s like being born again.  You must tear yourself down before you’re born again in the spirit of Christ.  We seem to believe cities must be ruined before we can declare victory over the enemy.

Consider 9/11/2001.  An inward-looking people may have kept the ruins of 9/11 as a monument to the victims.  But not us.  That’s expensive real estate, and on those ruins we were born again, building Freedom Tower, exactly 1776 feet in height.  Thus our fall was reinterpreted as rebirth, our defeat as victory, tragedy as triumph.  Even 9/11 itself is now celebrated as a day of patriotism.

Yes, we can reconstruct our own rubble, as we did after 9/11.  But will foreign rubble ever be reconstructed?  Cities like Mosul?  Well, who cares?  They are not of the body.  They are not us.  They are outcasts.  Let them survive in what’s left of their blasted buildings and homes.

Our TV shows reinforce our belief in violence and militarism.  New ones include “The Brave” on NBC, which begins by focusing on a pretty White female doctor kidnapped by Muslim terrorists and “brave” efforts to rescue her; “Valor” on the CW channel, featuring lots of helicopters and flags and automatic weapons; and the rather obvious “SEAL Team” on CBS, with elite Navy SEALs standing in for the superheroes of the past.  If you get tired of watching military heroics on TV, there’s always military-themed “shooter” video games.  Indeed, the military experience is everywhere, even in Madden football, where in “story mode” you can play against quarterback Dan Marino on an Army base in Iraq.  (The field is surrounded by a fortified fence, rocky hills, and a helicopter pad, among other exotic military features.)

America is being consumed by a religion of violence and mayhem.  We’re trapped in a dark maelstrom of death and destruction.  Yet how can we repudiate our god of war when we are so busy feeding him?  When we talk of “thoughts and prayers” after each tragedy, do we truly know which god we’re calling upon?

Mom’s Wisdom on Religion

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That’s mom, circa 1950

W.J. Astore

Today, I want to share a bracing view, courtesy of my mother.  She converted to Catholicism (from Protestantism) when she married my dad, but she wasn’t much of a church-goer.  When my dad suggested she should accompany him to mass on Sundays, she had a telling rejoinder:

You worry about your soul — I’ll worry about mine.

Excellent advice.  Mom had a way of speaking that cut to the chase.

When it comes to religion, too many Americans seek to push their beliefs on others.  And often there’s some guilt or a veiled threat in the push.  “A good person goes to church.” “These are holy days of obligation.”  “You should go to set a good example for the kids.” “Don’t forget judgment day — God is looking down on you right now.”

My mom was having none of that.  She also didn’t need church to do the right thing.  She was kind and generous and, in my opinion, followed the example of the Gospel without making airs about it.

When it comes to religion, few people want to be pushed into attending “mandatory” practices.  Indeed, I’ve always liked Christ’s teachings on praying to God in private, rather than standing on a street corner and shouting your beliefs to the masses.  Speaking of which, I once witnessed a man doing exactly that in Oxford, England, shouting on the street, proclaiming the good news.  When someone complained, he cited a Biblical passage that enjoined him to proclaim his faith in a loud voice so that others might follow in his footsteps.

That’s a problem with the Bible: So many passages, so many messages, so many interpretations.

Still, I persist in believing in my mother’s aphorism: Focus on the health of your own soul and its relationship to whatever higher power or higher ideals you believe in.  Don’t focus on the souls and the beliefs and practices of others.

Or, as Christ put it, “Judge not — lest you be judged.”