Edward Snowden and Turnkey Tyranny

snowden
Edward Snowden

W.J. Astore

Edward Snowden recently talked to Joe Rogan for nearly three hours.  Snowden has a book out (“Permanent Record“) about his life and his decision to become a whistleblower who exposed lies and crimes by the U.S. national security state.  As I watched Snowden’s interview, I jotted down notes and thoughts I had.  (The interview itself has more than seven million views on YouTube and rising, which is great to see.)  The term in my title, “turnkey tyranny,” is taken from the interview.

My intent here is not to summarize Snowden’s entire interview.  I want to focus on some points he made that I found especially revealing, pertinent, and insightful.

Without further ado, here are 12 points I took from this interview:

1.  People who reach the highest levels of government do so by being risk-averse.  Their goal is never to screw-up in a major way.  This mentality breeds cautiousness, mediocrity, and buck-passing.  (I saw the same in my 20 years in the U.S. military.)

2.  The American people are no longer partners of government.  We are subjects.  Our rights are routinely violated even as we become accustomed (or largely oblivious) to a form of turnkey tyranny.

3.  Intelligence agencies in the U.S. used 9/11 to enlarge their power.  They argued that 9/11 happened because there were “too many restrictions” on them.  This led to the PATRIOT Act and unconstitutional global mass surveillance, disguised as the price of being kept “safe” from terrorism.  Simultaneously, America’s 17 intelligence agencies wanted most of all not to be blamed for 9/11.  They wanted to ensure the buck stopped nowhere.  This was a goal they achieved.

4.  Every persuasive lie has a kernel of truth.  Terrorism does exist — that’s the kernel of truth.  Illegal mass surveillance, facilitated by nearly unlimited government power, in the cause of “keeping us safe” is the persuasive lie.

5.  The government uses classification (“Top Secret” and so on) primarily to hide things from the American people, who have no “need to know” in the view of government officials.  Secrecy becomes a cloak for illegality.  Government becomes unaccountable; the people don’t know, therefore we are powerless to rein in government excesses or to prosecute for abuses of power.

6.  Fear is the mind-killer (my expression here, quoting Frank Herbert’s Dune).  Snowden spoke much about the use of fear by the government, using expressions like “they’ll be blood on your hands” and “think of the children.”  Fear is the way to cloud people’s minds.  As Snowden put it, you lose the ability to act because you are afraid.

7.  What is true patriotism?  For Snowden, it’s about a constant effort to do good for the people.  It’s not loyalty to government.  Loyalty, Snowden notes, is only good in the service of something good.

8.  National security and public safety are not synonymous.  In fact, in the name of national security, our rights are being violated.  We are “sweeping up the broken glass of our lost rights” in today’s world of global mass surveillance, Snowden noted.

9.    We live naked before power.  Companies like Facebook and Google, together with the U.S. government, know everything about us; we know little about them.  It’s supposed to be the reverse (at least in a democracy).

10.  “The system is built on lies.”  James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, lies under oath before Congress.  And there are no consequences.  He goes unpunished.

11.  We own less and less of our own data.  Data increasingly belongs to corporations and the government.  It’s become a commodity.  Which means we are the commodity.  We are being exploited and manipulated, we are being sold, and it’s all legal, because the powerful make the policies and the laws, and they are unaccountable to the people.

12.  Don’t wait for a hero to save you.  What matters is heroic decisions.  You are never more than one decision away from making the world a better place.

In 2013, Edward Snowden made a heroic decision to reveal illegal mass surveillance by the U.S. government, among other governmental crimes.  He has made the world a better place, but as he himself knows, the fight has only just begun against turnkey tyranny.

Education in America: Of Hungry Wolves and Docile Sheep

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W.J. Astore

I was educated in public schools by dedicated teachers in the pre-digital age.  My teachers read books to me and had me read books.  I learned math, partly by rote, but also through friendly student competitions.  Science I learned by doing, like chemistry with Bunsen burners and test tubes.  I had classes in art and music, and even though I had little talent in drawing or playing an instrument, I still learned to appreciate both subjects.  My high school was big and diverse, so I took electives in courses I really enjoyed, like science fiction, photography, even a course in aquariology, in which I built my own aquarium.  And I must say I’m glad there wasn’t the distraction of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and similar social media sites to torment me; video games, meanwhile, were in my day still crude, so I spent more time outside, playing tennis, riding my bike, hanging with friends, being in the world and nature (fishing was a favorite pursuit).

When I was a teen, we learned a lot about history and civics and the humanities.  We spent time in the library, researching and writing.  I took a debate course and learned how to construct an argument and speak before an audience.  When I graduated from high school, I felt like I had a solid grounding: that I knew enough to make educated choices; that I could participate as a citizen by voting intelligently when I was eighteen.

Something has happened to education in America.  You can see it in the big trends that are being hyped, including STEM, vocational training, computers and online courses, and privatization (charter schools).  What suffers from these trends is the humanities, the arts, unionized teachers, critical and creative thinking skills, and, most especially, civics and ethics.

STEM is all about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  My BS is in mechanical engineering and I love science and math, so I’m sympathetic to STEM classes.  The problem is how STEM is justified – it’s usually couched in terms of keeping America competitive vis-à-vis other nations.  STEM is seen as a driver for economic success and growth, a servant of industry, innovation, and profit.  It’s not usually sold as developing critical thinking skills, even though STEM classes do help to develop such skills.

From STEM we turn to vocational training.  Many students seek a career, of course, and not all students wish to go to a four-year college, or to college period.  But once again vocational training is mainly justified as a feeder to business and industry.  It’s often reduced to education as training for labor, where the primary goal is to learn to earn.  It may produce decent plumbers and welders and electricians and the like, but also ones who are indoctrinated to accept the system as it is.

In The Baffler, Tarence Ray has an article, “Hollowed Out: Against the sham revitalization of Appalachia.”  Ray critiques ARC (the Appalachian Regional Commission) in the following passage that resonated with my own experiences teaching at a vocational college:

“The ARC [in the late 1960s and early ‘70s] also placed a lot of emphasis on career and vocational education.  This appealed to President Nixon, who was desperate to counteract the student activism of antiwar and environmental groups.  ‘Vocational education is more politically neutral,’ one White House aide put it.  But it was also advantageous for the multinational corporations who controlled Appalachia’s coal resources and most of its institutions of power–the goal was to create a workforce that was skilled but also obedient.  An education in the humanities emphasizes critical thinking, which might lead to political consciousness, a risk that the ARC could not afford to take.” [emphasis added]

My dad liked the historical saying, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  A vocational education sounds good, especially to those in power.  Doubtless young people need marketable skills.  The shame of it all is that the final “product” of vocational colleges–skilled graduates who are “workforce-ready”–is by design a limited one—an obedient one.  America needs active and informed citizens as well, and they need to have the skills and mindset to question their bosses, their so-called betters, because if they lack such a mindset, nothing will change for the better in our society.

Along with STEM and vocational training is an emphasis on computers and online courses.  Nowadays most school administrators would rather fund computers and networked classrooms than raise pay for teachers.  In fact, online courses are advertised as a way to replace teachers, or at least to reduce the number of full-time teachers needed on staff.  But I question whether one can learn sociology or art or philosophy or ethics by taking an online course.  And I remain skeptical of big “investments” in computers, SMART boards, and the like.  They may have their place, but they’re no substitute for education that’s truly student-centered, and one that’s focused on civics and ethics, right and wrong.

The final trend we’re seeing is privatization, as with charter schools.  The (false) narrative here is that teachers in unions are overpaid, unaccountable, and otherwise inflexible or incompetent.  Somehow the magical free market will solve this.  If only one could get rid of unions while privatizing everything, all will be well in America’s schools.  Private corporations, driven by profit and “efficiency,” will somehow produce a better product, a word I choose deliberately, for they see education as a product.  And while some charter schools have been innovative and effective, many others have failed, mainly because education isn’t education when it’s reduced to a “deliverable” – a commodity driven by and reduced to money.

At a time when the United States desperately needs critical and creative thinkers educated in the arts and humanities as well as STEM and vocational subjects, our schools and especially our legislators are rejecting their duty to serve democratic ideals, choosing instead to embrace business, industry, economic competitiveness, and obedience, all in service of the bottom line measured in dollars and cents.  Now more than ever, America needs young people who are engaged civically and ethically, who value more than money and materialism.  Yet many of our schools are pursuing a much different agenda.

Is it because hungry wolves prefer docile sheep?

Mass Shootings and American Carnage

mass-shooting

W.J. Astore

What can you say about mass shootings in America that hasn’t already been said?  El Paso and Dayton (not Toledo, Mr. Trump) are the most recent in a seemingly unending series of shootings in America.  A grim statistic:

“Dayton was the 22nd mass killing in America this year, according to an AP/USA Today/Northeastern University mass murder database, which tracks all attacks involving four or more people killed.”

Or, alternatively: “The shooting in Ohio marked the 31st deadly mass shooting in America this year, defined as those where at least three people are killed by gun violence in a single episode.”

Or, alternatively:

“As of today (Aug. 4), we are 216 days into 2019. In the US over that time, more than 1,300 people have been injured or killed in mass shootings, according to data collected by the Gun Violence Archive.

QUARTZ
Injuries and deaths related to mass shootings.

The nonprofit organization, which is based in Washington, DC, defines a mass shooting as an event in which at least four people were shot. By its calculations, that means there have been some 292 mass shootings in the US since the year began.”

In a prepared statement this morning, President Trump came out against white supremacy, racism, and bigotry, but tragically this is a clear case of “Do what I say, not what I do” for Trump.  He compounded his hypocrisy by ignoring the ready availability of assault weapons, blaming instead mental illness and violent video games, among other factors.

Firstly, the mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it.  Secondly, violent video games are a global phenomenon, but I’m not reading about dozens of mass shootings each year in Japan or Korea or Sweden.

Trump’s weak-willed words were thoroughly predictable; he’s closely aligned with the National Rifle Association and its total fixation on gun rights to the exclusion of all others.  He’s not alone in this.  When I taught in rural Pennsylvania, my students knew all about the Second Amendment.  But their knowledge of the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments was far weaker.  Yes, for many Americans guns really do trump free speech, freedom of the press, and similar rights.

Predictably, Americans search for a magic bullet (pun intended) after these horrifying massacres to put a stop to them.  How about better background checks?  Eliminating extended magazines for the millions of assault rifles that are already in the hands of Americans?  Better databases to track the mentally ill and the criminally violent?  And so on.  And we should have better background checks before you can buy a gun; we should stop selling military-style hardware; we should keep better track of dangerous people.  But steps such as these will only stem the violence (if that).  They won’t put an end to it.

Our culture is suffused with violence.  At the same time, powerful forces are at play (stoked by our very own president) to divide us, to inflame our passions, to turn us against them, where “them” is some category of “other,” as with the El Paso shooter, who targeted immigrants “invading” America.

To stop mass shootings, we must change our culture of violence.  This is made much more difficult by men like Trump, who’ve embraced violent rhetoric for their own selfish purposes.  But we must change it nonetheless, else witness more carnage across America.

Note to readers: This is not the first time I’ve written about violence and guns in America.  Here are links to a few articles on this subject at Bracing Views:

God, Country, Guns

Guns and Grievances

“People Who Cherish the Second Amendment”

America: Submerged in a Violent Cesspool

Lockdown America and School Shootings

Ten Cautionary Tenets About Air Power

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It’s always so much more awful on the ground

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I tackle America’s cult of bombing overseas, most recently in the Middle East, Central Asia, and portions of Africa, and the darker facets of air power in general.  Air power may not be “unthinkable” like nuclear war, but most Americans nevertheless choose not to think about it since the bombing, the destruction, the killing are happening elsewhere to people other than us.  Indeed, occasionally America’s politicians talk about bombing as if it’s a joke (consider John McCain’s little ditty about bombing Iran, or Ted Cruz’s reference to carpet bombing ISIS and making the sand “glow”).

Treating air power and bombing so cavalierly is a big mistake.  Much like mass shootings in the “homeland,” it’s become the background noise to our lives.  But it’s a deadly reality to others — and since violence often begets more violence, it may very well prove a prescription for permanent war.

Ten Cautionary Tenets About Air Power

1. Just because U.S. warplanes and drones can strike almost anywhere on the globe with relative impunity doesn’t mean that they should. Given the history of air power since World War II, ease of access should never be mistaken for efficacious results.

2. Bombing alone will never be the key to victory. If that were true, the U.S. would have easily won in Korea and Vietnam, as well as in Afghanistan and Iraq. American air power pulverized both North Korea and Vietnam (not to speak of neighboring Laos and Cambodia), yet the Korean War ended in a stalemate and the Vietnam War in defeat. (It tells you the world about such thinking that air power enthusiasts, reconsidering the Vietnam debacle, tend to argue the U.S. should have bombed even more — lots more.) Despite total air supremacy, the recent Iraq War was a disaster even as the Afghan War staggers on into its 18th catastrophic year.

3. No matter how much it’s advertised as “precise,” “discriminate,” and “measured,” bombing (or using missiles like the Tomahawk) rarely is. The deaths of innocents are guaranteed. Air power and those deaths are joined at the hip, while such killings only generate anger and blowback, thereby prolonging the wars they are meant to end.

Consider, for instance, the “decapitation” strikes launched against Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein and his top officials in the opening moments of the Bush administration’s invasion of 2003. Despite the hype about that being the beginning of the most precise air campaign in all of history, 50 of those attacks, supposedly based on the best intelligence around, failed to take out Saddam or a single one of his targeted officials. They did, however, cause “dozens” of civilian deaths. Think of it as a monstrous repeat of the precision air attacks launched on Belgrade in 1999 against Slobodan Milosevic and his regime that hit the Chinese embassy instead, killing three journalists.

Here, then, is the question of the day: Why is it that, despite all the “precision” talk about it, air power so regularly proves at best a blunt instrument of destruction? As a start, intelligence is often faulty. Then bombs and missiles, even “smart” ones, do go astray. And even when U.S. forces actually kill high-value targets (HVTs), there are always more HVTs out there. A paradox emerges from almost 18 years of the war on terror: the imprecision of air power only leads to repetitious cycles of violence and, even when air strikes prove precise, there always turn out to be fresh targets, fresh terrorists, fresh insurgents to strike.

4. Using air power to send political messages about resolve or seriousness rarely works. If it did, the U.S. would have swept to victory in Vietnam. In Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, for instance, Operation Rolling Thunder (1965-1968), a graduated campaign of bombing, was meant to, but didn’t, convince the North Vietnamese to give up their goal of expelling the foreign invaders — us — from South Vietnam. Fast-forward to our era and consider recent signals sent to North Korea and Iran by the Trump administration via B-52 bomber deployments, among other military “messages.” There’s no evidence that either country modified its behavior significantly in the face of the menace of those baby-boomer-era airplanes.

5. Air power is enormously expensive. Spending on aircraft, helicopters, and their munitions accounted for roughly half the cost of the Vietnam War. Similarly, in the present moment, making operational and then maintaining Lockheed Martin’s boondoggle of a jet fighter, the F-35, is expected to cost at least $1.45 trillion over its lifetime. The new B-21 stealth bomber will cost more than $100 billion simply to buy. Naval air wings on aircraft carriers cost billions each year to maintain and operate. These days, when the sky’s the limit for the Pentagon budget, such costs may be (barely) tolerable. When the money finally begins to run out, however, the military will likely suffer a serious hangover from its wildly extravagant spending on air power.

6. Aerial surveillance (as with drones), while useful, can also be misleading. Command of the high ground is not synonymous with god-like “total situational awareness.” It can instead prove to be a kind of delusion, while war practiced in its spirit often becomes little more than an exercise in destruction. You simply can’t negotiate a truce or take prisoners or foster other options when you’re high above a potential battlefield and your main recourse is blowing up people and things.

7. Air power is inherently offensive. That means it’s more consistent with imperial power projection than with national defense. As such, it fuels imperial ventures, while fostering the kind of “global reach, global power” thinking that has in these years had Air Force generals in its grip.

8. Despite the fantasies of those sending out the planes, air power often lengthens wars rather than shortening them. Consider Vietnam again. In the early 1960s, the Air Force argued that it alone could resolve that conflict at the lowest cost (mainly in American bodies). With enough bombs, napalm, and defoliants, victory was a sure thing and U.S. ground troops a kind of afterthought. (Initially, they were sent in mainly to protect the airfields from which those planes took off.) But bombing solved nothing and then the Army and the Marines decided that, if the Air Force couldn’t win, they sure as hell could. The result was escalation and disaster that left in the dust the original vision of a war won quickly and on the cheap due to American air supremacy.

9. Air power, even of the shock-and-awe variety, loses its impact over time. The enemy, lacking it, nonetheless learns to adapt by developing countermeasures — both active (like missiles) and passive (like camouflage and dispersion), even as those being bombed become more resilient and resolute.

10. Pounding peasants from two miles up is not exactly an ideal way to occupy the moral high ground in war.

The Road to Perdition

If I had to reduce these tenets to a single maxim, it would be this: all the happy talk about the techno-wonders of modern air power obscures its darker facets, especially its ability to lock America into what are effectively one-way wars with dead-end results…

In reality, this country might do better to simply ground its many fighter planes, bombers, and drones. Paradoxically, instead of gaining the high ground, they are keeping us on a low road to perdition.

To read all of this article, please go to TomDispatch.com.b52

“Great-Power Rivalry” Is Back

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A carrier strike group is an enormous investment in ships, money, and manpower.  Its chief aim is sea control and power projection.  As its name suggests, it’s primarily an offensive force. (US Navy illustration)

W.J. Astore

Should we have a Department of Offense in place of a Department of Defense (DoD)?  Wouldn’t “Offense” be more accurate?  Perhaps in more ways than one?

Consider the revival of “great-power rivalry,” meaning China and Russia as America’s main rivals.  (Terrorists may be trouble, but you don’t necessarily need nuclear-powered carriers and stealth bombers to neutralize them.)  The new “cold war” is all the rage within the DoD, even though China and Russia are regional land powers, having little of the arsenal of global power projection in which the U.S. takes so much pride.

On this subject, the following snippet on Russia’s navy, courtesy of FP: Foreign Policy, is eye-opening:

The Russian military is considering decommissioning its only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, a Soviet era ship that has been beset by maintenance problems and whose reliability is so questionable that a tug boat follows it around on deployments.”

A sputtering and antiquated aircraft carrier that needs tugboats to get around: not much to fear there, America.

Like Russia, China has a single aircraft carrier, though there are plans to build one or two more.  Even if China does, the U.S. will still maintain an enormous lead on its “great-power” rivals.  Some rivalry!

The U.S. Navy currently has eleven fleet aircraft carriers, with two new ones under construction and a further two on order.  Indeed, to make space for all these new carriers, the Navy has plans to retire CVN-75, Harry S Truman, 20 years early, an idea even Congress finds silly.

But give the Navy credit.  They knew Congress would balk at early retirement for the Truman, which doesn’t mean they’re backing off on new carrier orders.  Instead, the Navy wants it all: two new carriers and a refurbished and refueled Truman.

Consider the following exchange between a senator and an admiral:

“If we were to give you more money, you’d keep the Truman in place, wouldn’t you? Would that be your druthers?” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) asked.

“Our druthers would be to not surrender a carrier that has 50-percent of its life remaining, but we would like to not do that at the expense of moving out on these other technologies that every assessment has told us” the Navy will need in the future, [said] Vice Adm. Bill Merz, deputy chief of naval operations for warfare systems.

“So basically we should consider giving you more money, right?” Hirono asked.

Replied Merz, “yes, ma’am.”

You just have to love these admirals and generals.  The answer is always more money!

U.S. “defense” experts have always been most expert at getting the biggest slice of the federal budgetary pie.  That, and threat inflation.  Hence the appeal to a new cold war with China (primarily an economic juggernaut) and Russia (an energy giant with lots of nukes), even though the U.S. military clearly outclasses both countries in global dominance and “defense” spending.

The world of “defense” is just getting too absurd for me.  What next?  A U.S. carrier strike group deployed off the coast to defend our border with Mexico?  Our president did say we’re being invaded.  You heard it here first.

Are Drone Strikes Cowardly?

drone
Heroic warriors?

W.J. Astore

A recent article in The National Interest captured an open secret: Donald Trump has been using drone strikes far more than Barack Obama ever did.

The Pentagon likes to depict such strikes as incredibly accurate, with few or even no innocents killed.  Such a portrayal is inaccurate, however, since “precision” bombing isn’t precise.  Intelligence is often wrong.  Missiles don’t always hit their targets.  Explosions and their effects are unpredictable.

Recognizing those realities, are drone strikes also cowardly?

America likes to fancy itself the “home of the brave,” a land of “heroes” and “warriors.” But how heroic is it to launch a Hellfire missile from a drone, without any risk to yourself?  Aren’t warriors supposed to be on the receiving end of elemental violence as well as being the inflictors of it?

Experiencing violence, even reveling in it while enduring war’s passions and horrific results was part of what it meant to be a warrior.  Think of Achilles versus Hector in ancient days, or knights jousting with knights in the Middle Ages, or men not firing until they saw the white of the enemy’s eyes at Bunker Hill.  Even when machines intruded, it wasn’t just T-34 tanks versus Tigers at Kursk in 1943, or B-17 bombers versus Focke-Wulf Fw 190s over Berlin in 1944: it was the men operating those machines who mattered — and who demonstrated heroism and warrior spirit.

But when war becomes robotic and routine for one side, action at a great distance and indeed at total remove from violence and its effects, can that be heroic in any way?  Isn’t drone warfare a form of denatured war, war without passion, war without risk to U.S. drone operators?

Don’t get me wrong.  Drone warfare has its pains for its “operators.”  PTSD exists for these men and women who pilot the drones and launch the missiles; watching other people die on video, when you’re responsible for their deaths, carries a cost, at least for some.  But is it not all-too-tempting to smite and kill others when they have no way of smiting you back?

Back in 2012, I wrote an article on the temptations of drone warfare.  I suggested that, “In light of America’s growing affection for drone warfare combined with a disassociation from its terrible results, I submit to you a modified version of General [Robert E.] Lee’s sentiment:

It is not well that war grows less terrible for us – for we are growing much too fond of it.”

That the Trump administration is turning so fondly to drone strikes (following the example of Obama, for once proudly) is yet another sign that America is far too devoted to war.  Is it not because war is so profitable for a few, and so painless for the rest of us?

There is no direct pain to America from drone warfare, but there’s also little recognition of war’s horrific costs and the need to end them; there is no immediate risk, but there’s also little recognition that there are ways to triumph other than simply killing one’s perceived enemies.

A final, heretical, question: Are Americans so eager to celebrate their warriors as heroes precisely because they so often practice a form of warfare that is unheroic and even cowardly?  If Americans were routinely on the receiving end of drone strikes by a distant foreign power, I think I know how we’d answer that question.

America’s Mad Nuclear Weapons Surge

Trident-II-D5-Missile-Launches-from-the-USS-Nebraska
Trident II D5 Missile Launch.  No matter how “small” the warhead, you never want to see one of these launch under “real world” conditions

W.J. Astore

As a young captain in the Air Force, I visited Los Alamos National Lab in 1992. The mood there was grim. What use for a lab that develops and tests nuclear weapons when the Cold War with the Soviet Union was over and America was downsizing its nuclear forces? The people I talked to said the lab would have to reinvent itself; its nuclear physicists and engineers would have to adapt. Perhaps they might move to more commercial applications of technology. Better that than closing down the lab, they said.

Who knew that, 25+ years later, nuclear weapons would make their own “surge” and that the U.S. would plan to “invest” more than a trillion dollars in nuclear modernization, beginning with smaller, more “usable,” low-yield nuclear warheads for the Navy’s Trident missiles, as James Carroll wrote about yesterday at TomDispatch.com.  Even “small” warheads have genocidal implications, however, for once you start launching nuclear-tipped missiles, no matter how “small,” escalation is likely to follow.

That sunny day in New Mexico in 1992, I could not have imagined a new American surge in nuclear weapons, beginning with the Obama administration and now championed by men like Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo, and John Bolton.  That day, it seemed the end of the era of MAD — mutually assured destruction — the end to fears of nuclear war.  Soon even conservatives like Henry Kissinger and George Schultz were calling for  the elimination of nuclear weapons.

But that was 2007-08, and this is now.  The madness is back, America.  I urge you to read and heed James Carroll’s warning at TomDispatch.com.  If we want to save ourselves as well as our planet’s biosphere, we need to eliminate nuclear weapons, not build more of them.