Trump’s Garden of Heroes

Statues
Silent teachers in stone and metal: U.S. Capitol

W.J. Astore

While castigating the “radical left” in his latest vitriolic speech before Mount Rushmore, Trump proposed a new garden of heroes to celebrate meaningful Americans.  Naturally, that list has generated controversy.  As others have noted, Native Americans are absent from the list; so too are Hispanics; and so too are Democratic presidents.

Here’s a look at Trump’s “heroes”:

John Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Daniel Boone, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Henry Clay, Davy Crockett, Frederick Douglass, Amelia Earhart, Benjamin Franklin, Billy Graham, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Douglas MacArthur, Dolley Madison, James Madison, Christa McAuliffe, Audie Murphy, George S. Patton, Jr., Ronald Reagan, Jackie Robinson, Betsy Ross, Antonin Scalia, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, George Washington, Orville and Wilbur Wright.

It’s easy to pick apart any list.  Why this person and not that one?  Or why not this person and that one?  For example, why not MLK Jr. and Malcolm X?  Why not Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali?  Is it because MLK Jr. and Jackie are considered safer, or less controversial, or more American because they were “less angry”?

Among other absences, there’s another I’d like to highlight: Any person dedicated to the cause of peace.*

Again, looking at Trump’s list, what struck me was the predictable worship of military men, not just Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain from the Civil War or Audie Murphy from World War II but the usual generals Trump professes to love, Patton and MacArthur.  Two vainglorious wannabe Caesars, the very opposite of America’s citizen-soldier ideal, are Trump’s idea of America’s noblest generals.  Not George C. Marshall and Omar Bradley, also of World War II fame, and both more deserving of acclaim, and more suited to America’s military traditions.  Or how about General Smedley Butler, twice awarded the Medal of Honor, who became an outspoken critic of war after his retirement?

What also struck me was the presence of “the usual suspects” in the list.  Do we really need yet another statue to George Washington?  Abraham Lincoln?  Benjamin Franklin?  Can’t we come up with some lesser known heroes worthy of acclaim, perhaps someone like Prudence Crandall, a schoolteacher who established the first school for African-American girls in New England, and who faced mob violence as she fought to keep her school open.  Or how about Elihu Burritt, the Learned Blacksmith, who fought so hard in antebellum America against war.  America has a wealth of unsung heroes; why not take this chance to celebrate “ordinary” Americans doing extraordinary things?

Notice, naturally, the deep bow to conservative icons such as Billy Graham, Ronald Reagan, and Antonin Scalia.  An evangelist, a president, and a Supreme Court Justice, respectively.  So how about Dorothy Day, Jimmy Carter, and Harry Blackmun to balance the partisan ledger?

Some science might be injected with Carl Sagan or James Watson.  Some environmentalism with Rachel Carson.  During a pandemic, why not Jonas Salk?  And why is America’s greatest inventor, Thomas Edison, not on this list?  Of course, you could go on almost endlessly here.

Perhaps what amused me most was the stipulation the statues have to be lifelike or realistic, not abstract or modernist representations.  They are to be “silent teachers in solid form of stone and metal,” per Trump’s executive order.  This rejection of abstract or modernist representation put me to mind of Nazi Germany’s rejection of so-called degenerate art.  The Nazis preferred art that celebrated uncontroversially the heroism of Germans and the human form: art that was open only to the most obvious interpretation.  As a good friend put it, “Combine Trump’s classical garden of heroes with his edict that public buildings be made ‘beautiful again’ in a neoclassical style and all he’s missing is a catchy antisemitic drinking song.”

In other words, Trump wants a garden of heroes in which we’re expected to bow our heads in awe, rather than hold our heads in thought.  Awe is befitting to a dictatorship, but thought is becoming to a democracy.

* I’ve applauded MLK Jr.’s efforts to end the Vietnam War; he deserves to be recognized as a peace activist, but of course he’s on Trump’s list for his civil rights record, not his critique of America as the world’s greatest purveyor of violence.  One name I’d love to see added to the list is Daniel Ellsberg, who risked everything to expose American lies with the release of the Pentagon Papers.

Trump’s Culture War

200704-trump-rushmore-axc-1205a_5601cdb840d1a993a5148125620777b3.nbcnews-fp-1200-630
Shameless, thy name be Trump

W.J. Astore

President Trump’s strategy for winning in 2020 is to fan the flames of culture war, including blatant references to white power.  Even some Republicans seem embarrassed, though not enough to make any difference in Trump’s reprehensible tactics.  Trump’s emptiness is incalculable — this and his cult-like “base” make him a dangerous man indeed.  He needs to be denounced and voted out of office; how disappointing is it that the Democratic alternative is Joe Biden, a man with his own record of lies, a man with little going for him except that he’s not Donald Trump.

Along with culture war, Republicans are also doing their best to discourage voting.  The tactics here are many: fewer polling stations, meaning longer lines and wait times; voter ID laws to counter non-existent voter fraud; disenfranchisement of voters through purges of rolls; opposition to mail-in ballots and other efforts to make voting easier and safer in the age of Covid-19; the presence of “monitors” at polling sites as a form of intimidation.

Rally the base while suppressing the overall vote: this, apparently, is what Trump is counting on this November.

Why?  Because Trump has nothing real to run on.  His biggest “accomplishment” was a tax break for corporations and for the richest Americans.  When asked by Fox News about what he wanted to accomplish in his second term, Trump had nothing specific to say.  No policy goals.  Nothing.  The one thing he seems determined to do, besides building his wall, is eliminating Obamacare, which would throw tens of millions off their health care plans during a pandemic.

If cynicism has a bottom, Trump hasn’t found it yet, though not for want of trying.

Of course, Trump’s culture war is as ugly as it is racist.  It’s also a distraction from rampant and blatant kleptocracy.  For example, the latest “defense” budget calls for $740 billion in spending, yet the key issue for Trump is to defend military posts that are named for Confederate officers.  Trump, a New York City trust fund baby, as Yankee as a Yankee can be, poses as a principled defender of Confederate leaders and the Confederate battle flag, in the name of “respecting our past.”  Consider him the quintessential con man as cultural carpetbagger, cynically adopting any position that he can use to inflame his base and drive them to the polls this November.

Truly, these are bizarre times.  Trump, the Vietnam draft dodger, the man of heel spurs infamy, celebrates Generals George Patton and Douglas MacArthur as his ideals.  As military leaders, both were deeply flawed; both were vainglorious; both were over-celebrated and overrated.  Small wonder that Trump sees something in them that he sees in himself: overweening egotism, the quest for victory at any cost, including the deaths of their own troops.

Trump wants America to turn on itself, to consume itself, and as long as he wins another term, he couldn’t care less about the cost.  Why?  Because he doesn’t see us as his fellow citizens — he sees us as his subjects.  And even if you count yourself in his “base,” he likely sees you as nothing more than a patsy.  A sucker.  And, based on his total lack of leadership when it comes to Covid-19, he literally doesn’t care if you live or die.

Trump is a wannabe king, and he will say or do most anything to keep his grip on power.  Having just marked another July 4th celebration of America’s independence from a capricious monarch, King George III, it doesn’t make any sense to re-empower another mad king.

Don’t be distracted by Trump’s culture wars and his incessant divisiveness, America.  Remember its intent: to divide is the way to conquer.  Trump doesn’t want “to keep America great.”  He wants to keep it servile to him.  He wants you under his spell, shouting his name, laughing at his cruel jokes.

Is that what you want for yourself and for our country?

Frederick Douglass on Patriotism and Taking A Knee

Today, the 4th of July, reminds us of our independence but not of its universality or equity. Frederick Douglass famously called attention to America’s hypocrisy in his 4th of July speech in 1852. Recently, his descendants read portions of his speech, which you can see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBe5qbnkqoM

As Davout says in his powerful article, Douglass called for a better America, one that would move beyond empty patriotic gestures. It’s a message that’s even more urgently needed today.

Bracing Views

taking a knee Colin Kaepernick (#7) takes a knee

M. Davout

A week after Super Bowl Sunday, I was reading Frederick Douglass’s “Fourth of July Address,” given by the intrepid abolitionist and eminent public intellectual on July 5, 1852 to several hundred spectators in Rochester, New York. It struck me then how contemporary Douglass’s antebellum insights into the nature of patriotism in America seemed, especially in the wake of an NFL season steeped in controversy over football players (mostly African-American) taking a knee during the national anthem.  Their symbolic protest, dismissed by some, notably including a tweeting president, as unpatriotic, was intended to highlight how police encounters with people of color in this country all too often and disproportionately end in unjustified uses of deadly force.

800px-Frederick_Douglass_by_Samuel_J_Miller,_1847-52 Frederick Douglass near the time of the Rochester Speech, given on the 5th of July 1852

At the time of his Fourth of July Address…

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Of Trump, Obama, and Brand Name Presidents

st-galileo19
Mister Spock learns the burdens of command

W.J. Astore

Trump isn’t a politician — he’s a brand.  What he wants more than anything is brand loyalty.  So he plays to his base as much as possible, maintaining their loyalty by hitting “hot button” issues like immigration, abortion, white power, guns, Confederate generals, standing for the flag and the national anthem, the bible (while gassing peaceful protesters), and so on.

Obama was also a brand — but he arguably gave his most fervent supporters much less than Trump.  What I mean is this: Obama posed as a progressive but ruled mostly as a corporate Republican-lite, taking his base for granted, figuring quite rightly they had nowhere else to go.  What that meant in practice was a feckless administration that led to disillusion, setting the stage for another, much less moderate, brand name: Trump.

Early in 2010, I was flummoxed by Obama and his feckless leadership.  Tapping into my affection for science fiction and “Star Trek,” I wrote the article below on how Obama had to “Learn from Mr. Spock” and take bigger chances.  Of course, Obama had no interest in going big — he much preferred to cash in and go home.  And so he has.

Trump and Obama: well-known brand names, but one has served his base more loyally than the other.  Guess which one?  Hint: It’s the one who overacts, much like William Shatner playing Captain Kirk.

President Obama: Learn from Mr. Spock! (Posted 1/27/2010)

President Obama’s cool, cerebral, logical style has drawn comparisons to Mr. Spock of Star Trek, as played by Leonard Nimoy in the original series from the 1960s.  Like that half-Vulcan, half-human Spock, Obama is a man of two worlds, of White America and Black America, of Kansas and Kenya.  Like Spock, he’s a careful thinker, a man who measures his words with precision, a man who seems to pride himself in being in control of his emotions.

Yet perhaps the most telling similarity between fictional Spock and factual Obama is their lack of command experience.  Spock was Captain Kirk’s loyal first officer.  An expert in science, he had no desire to gain the captain’s chair.  Before he gained the Oval Office, Obama was a community organizer, a law professor, a state senator, and a U.S. senator.  Respectable positions, but not ones requiring a command presence.

Both lack Kirk-like swagger, yet each had to take command.  In Spock’s case, it came in the Star Trek episode, “The Galileo Seven.”  His decisions, the criticisms he faces, even his mistakes are uncannily like those of Obama in his first year of office.

To set the scene: Spock leads six crewmembers in a shuttlecraft that crashes on a dangerous planet.  As Spock and crew race against time to repair their disabled craft, they are attacked by a primitive race of large, hairy humanoids.  While facing down an enemy he barely understands, Spock simultaneously has to win the trust of a crew that thinks he’s a heartless machine, and perhaps even a malfunctioning one at that.  He succeeds, but only after experiencing a most unSpock-like inspiration.

Along the way, Spock makes several questionable decisions.  He seeks both to understand the hostile primitives and to intimidate them.  Rather than hitting them hard, he directs fire away from them, concluding “logically” that they’ll run away and stay away after seeing “phaser” fire.  Meanwhile, he posts a guard in a vulnerable position.  The result: the primitives return, the guard is killed, and a vacillating Spock is barely able to keep control over an increasingly insolent crew.

What went wrong?  Spock doesn’t know.  Logically, the primitives should have respected the superior technology of the marooned crew.  But as the thoroughly human Dr. McCoy points out, the primitives were just as likely to act irrationally as rationally.  Facing dangerous intruders in their midst, they didn’t run and hide; they attacked with unappeasable anger.

While under attack, Spock even experiences a moment of “analysis paralysis” as he thinks out loud about his failings.  A crewmember cuttingly remarks, “We could use a little inspiration.”  Even the good doctor calls for less analysis and more action.

Now, let’s turn to Obama.  Consider the Republicans as stand-ins for the hairy primitives (resemblances, if any, are purely coincidental).  Throughout his first year of office, Obama acted as if he could both reason with them – creating an amicable modus vivendi – and intimidate them if the occasion demanded.

What he failed to realize (the “irrational” or “illogical” element) was that Republicans could neither be convinced by sweet talk nor intimidated by warning shots.  Implacable opposition and anger were their preferred options.  By misinterpreting his opponents, Spock lost a crewmember; Obama (perhaps) a legacy.

How does Spock recover and save the day?  By gambling.  As the repaired shuttlecraft crawls into orbit, Spock jettisons what little fuel remains and ignites it.  Like sending up a flare, the redoubtable Mr. Scott, the chief engineer, notes ruefully, as the shuttle starts to burn up on reentry.  But the desperate gamble works.  Kirk, showing his usual command resourcefulness, had stretched his orders just enough to stay within scanning range of the planet.  Seeing the flare, he beams Spock and the other survivors on board the Enterprise a split-second before the shuttle disintegrates.

The lesson?  Sometimes a commander has to grab the reins of command and act. Sometimes, he even has to gamble at frightfully long odds.  Earlier, Spock had said he neither enjoyed command nor was he frightened by it.  He had to learn to enjoy it – and to be frightened by it.  In the process, he learned that cool logic and rational analysis are not enough: not when facing determined opponents and seemingly lost causes.

So, President Obama, what can you learn from Spock’s first command?  That we could use a little inspiration.  That we want less analysis and more action.  That we may even need a game-changing gamble.

C’mon, Mr. President: Jettison the fuel and ignite it.  Maybe, just maybe, the path you blaze will lead us home again.

Postscript (7/1/20): Obama never took command.  He never took risks on behalf of progressive principles.  (Perhaps he just didn’t have any.)  The emptiness of his brand enabled Trump.  Will Trump’s emptiness enable more fecklessness in the name of Joe Biden?

A Thought Experiment for America’s Afghan War

Obama
President Obama with his chosen “surge” commander, General Stanley McChrystal

W.J. Astore

The Afghan War is back in the news, mainly because of allegations that Russian entities offered a bounty to the Taliban to kill U.S. troops.  Pulling no punches, Alternet used this headline: “The Pentagon leaks an explosive story of Trump’s dereliction of duty — widening the rift between the military and the White House.”

The U.S. military has been fighting the Taliban ever since 2001, so why the latter now needs bounties to motivate them is unclear.  Indeed, the original “bounty” story at the New York Times was thinly and anonymously sourced and has been denied by Russia and the Taliban.  Of course, in the past U.S. officials had their own bounties on various “terrorists,” and who can forget President George W. Bush’s appeal to Old West lore when he echoed those “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters in the search for Osama bin Laden?

President Trump has said he wants to end the Afghan War by November, but he is surprisingly weak in reining in the Pentagon.  At some level, Trump knows the Afghan War is unwinnable; it always has been.  It’s unjust as well, though Trump never uses that kind of language.  He sees it mainly as a business proposition that’s losing money bigtime.  Yet despite all his fawning words for the military, he can’t impose his will on the Pentagon.

Back in 2010, I tried to point out the folly of America’s war in the following article.  At the time, President Obama was implementing a “surge” of troops that proved both unsustainable and unwise.  So I put together this thought experiment, putting my gun-toting neighbors and friends in the rugged hills of rural Pennsylvania in the role of an American Taliban responding to an invasive force.  A decade ago, I had no doubt who would prevail, whether in reality or in my experiment.

As the Afghan War approaches two decades, how will we ever end our folly when even so-called liberal media sources are waving red shirts and inflaming passions with talk of Russian bounties? (6/28/2020)

A Thought Experiment for Our Afghan Surge

(Written in January 2010)

Consider the following thought experiment. Give the Afghan Taliban our technology and money, and have them journey thousands of miles to the densely forested hills and mountains of rural Pennsylvania, close to where I currently live. Who’s going to prevail? The Afghans fighting a high-tech counterinsurgency campaign, or the PA locals fighting a low-tech campaign to defend their homes and way of life?

My money would be on my “hillbilly” (a term I use affectionately) neighbors who love to hunt, who know the terrain, and who are committed to liberty. My students, male and female, are generally tough, resourceful, love the outdoors, make their own beef jerky, cut and split their own wood, have plenty of guns and ammo and bows and knives and, well, you get the idea. Even in my classes, they’re wearing camouflage pants, vests, and hats. They could go from college student to people’s warrior before you could say Mao Zedong. And I doubt they’d spare much love for foreign fighters on their turf.

Now, consider an Afghan intelligence officer trying to understand rural PA culture, to blend in with the locals, to win hearts and minds. What are the chances this intelligence operative would be successful? If he speaks English, it’s in a broken, heavily accented form, insensitive to local and regional variations. If he can’t bargain with words, he might be able to bribe a few locals into helping him, but their allegiance will wane as the money runs out.

As this imaginary Afghan force seeks to gain control over the countryside, its members find themselves being picked off like so many whitetail deer. Using their drones and Hellfire missiles, they strike back at the PA rebels, only to mistake a raucous yet innocent biker rally for a conglomeration of insurgents. Among the dead bodies and twisted Harleys, a new spirit of resistance is born.

Now, if you’ve followed me in this thought experiment, why don’t we get it? Why can’t we see that the odds are stacked against us in Afghanistan? Why are we surprised that, by our own assessment, our intelligence in Afghanistan is still “clueless” after eight years and “ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced … and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers”?

And why would we think that a surge of more “clueless” operatives would reverse the tide?

Would more Taliban forces deployed to the hills and valleys of PA win the hearts and minds of the locals?

I know the answer to that hypothetical: as the PA rebels might say, no friggin’ way.

The Police, the Military, and the Ethos of Violence

wendy's
Another deadly police shooting of a black man led to this Wendy’s being torched in Atlanta.  The Atlanta police chief has resigned.

W.J. Astore

Here are ten thoughts that have occurred to me lately.

  1. Police are a nation within a nation (“the thin blue line”), with their own flag, their own uniforms, their own code of conduct, maybe even their own laws.  How do we get them to rejoin America?  How do we get them to recall they’re citizens and public servants first?
  2. Our systems of authority, including the presidency under Trump, serve themselves first.  They all want the same thing: MORE.  More money, more authority, more power.  And they all tend toward more violence.  And because racism is systemic, much of that violence is aimed at blacks, but it’s aimed at anyone considered to be fringe or in the way.
  3. We need an entirely new mindset or ethos in this country, but the police, the military, the Congress, the president are all jealous of their power, and will resist as best they can.  Their main tactic will be to slow roll changes while scaring us with talk of all the “enemies” we face.  Thus we already see Trump hyping China as a threat while claiming that Biden wants to “defund” the military — a shameless and ridiculous lie.  Meanwhile, Biden is against defunding the police and proudly took ownership of the crime bill that created much of the problem.
  4. We used to have a Department of War to which citizen-soldiers were drafted.  Now we have a Department of Defense to which warriors and warfighters volunteer.  There’s a lot of meaning in this terminology.
  5. Even as the police and military are government agencies, publicly funded, they are instruments of capitalism.  They protect and expand property for the elites.  They are enforcers of prevailing paradigms.
  6. It amazes me how cheaply one can buy a Washington politician.  You can buy access for a few thousand, or tens of thousands, and get them to dance to your tune for a few million.  This is capitalism, where everything and everyone can be bought or sold, often on the cheap.
  7. Doesn’t it seem like Washington foreign policy is dropping bombs, selling bombs, killing people, or making a killing, i.e. profiteering?
  8. America always need a “peer enemy,” and, when necessary, we’ll invent one.  America is #1 at making enemies — maybe that should be our national motto.
  9. Too often nowadays, “diversity” is all about surface or “optics.”  Thus the call for Joe Biden to select a black woman as his running mate, irrespective of her views.  Thus we hear the names of Susan Rice and Kamala Harris being mentioned, both mainstream Democrats, both servants of the national security state, pliable and predictable.  But you never hear the name of Nina Turner, who was national co-chair of Bernie Sanders’s campaign.  She’s an outspoken black progressive, and that’s not the “diversity” Joe Biden and the DNC seek.  Or what about Tulsi Gabbard, who has endorsed Biden?  Woman of color, extensive military experience, lots of appeal to independent-minded voters.  But she’s an opponent of forever wars and the military-industrial-congressional complex, and that’s “diversity” that cannot be tolerated.  So we’re most likely to see a “diverse” ticket of Biden-Harris or Biden-Rice, just like Hillary-Tim Kaine, i.e. no progressive views can or will be heard.
  10. One secret of Trump’s appeal: He makes even dumb people feel smart.  After all, even his most stalwart supporters didn’t drink or inject bleach after Trump suggested it could be used for internal “cleansing” to avoid Covid-19.

Bonus comment: Can you believe that those who worked to suppress protests in Washington, D.C. compared their “stand” to the Alamo and the Super Bowl?  Talk about Trump-level hyperbole!  Here’s the relevant passage from the New York Times:

On Tuesday, during a conference call with commanders on the situation in Washington, General Ryan, the task force commander, likened the defense of Lafayette Square to the “Alamo” and his troops’ response to the huge protests on Saturday to the “Super Bowl.”

Mission accomplished!  What’s on your mind, readers?

Interview on Police Militarization

W.J. Astore

Today, Burt Cohen and I discussed police militarization and how to reverse it.  The interview was based on my article for TomDispatch.com, posted here at Bracing Views as well.  Here is what Burt posted at his site, Keeping Democracy Alive (link follows):

Are We The Enemy Now?

For nearly 20 years, the goal of America’s perpetual war has been about dominating the world.  It has been largely out of sight, but now it’s on our streets.  Our president has turned the weapons on us; again the goal is domination of the streets.  All decked out in combat gear, the line between police and the military is blurred.  The police are hired by us to defend us, not attack us.  On this show USAF retired Lieutenant Colonel and history professor William Astore gives his perspective on “warrior cops.”  Astore says there’s a reason why we don’t have military parades in America. What we have here is a twisted version of security, but with millions witnessing the murder of George Floyd, and realizing that there are hundreds more like that we have not seen, perhaps this is a turning point. Click https://bit.ly/3fnMrFP for podcast. Subscribe@keepingdemocracyalive.com

America’s Forever Wars Have Come Home

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt at TomDispatch.com

Here’s a little portrait of the United States in June 2020, a passage from a New York Times report on the National Guard’s treatment of a recent protest march of people chanting “We can’t breathe!” in Washington, D.C.:

“A Black Hawk helicopter, followed by a smaller medical evacuation helicopter, dropped to rooftop level with its searchlights aimed at the crowd. Tree limbs snapped, nearly hitting several people. Signs were torn from the sides of buildings. Some protesters looked up, while others ran into doorways. The downward force of air from the rotors was deafening. The helicopters were performing a ‘show of force’ — a standard tactic used by military aircraft in combat zones to scatter insurgents.”

Talk about America’s wars coming home! George Floyd’s recent killing is both a long way, and yet not far at all, from the police shooting of the unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Many Americans felt shocked then on seeing that city’s police force respond to the ensuing protests togged out in Pentagon-supplied gear of every sort, including sniper rifles and Humvees, often directly off the battlefields of this country’s ongoing wars. As Missouri Congressman Emanuel Cleaver put it then, referring to an Iraqi city largely destroyed by the U.S. military in 2004, “Ferguson resembles Fallujah.”

The question is: What does the U.S. resemble six years later? You know, I’m talking about the place that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper recently referred to as a “battle space” (as in “dominate the battle space”) in a contentious discussion he and President Trump had with the nation’s governors. I’m talking about the country where that same president has been threatening to call out the troops as police forces. (When retired military brass screamed bloody murder, Esper began backing down.) I’m talking about the land into which Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton has the urge to send the 101st Airborne Division, or Screaming Eagles, whose assault troops have previously seen action in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. (“If local politicians will not do their most basic job to protect our citizens, let’s see how these anarchists respond when the 101st Airborne is on the other side of the street.”)

Could you ever doubt that America’s wars would sooner or later come home in a big way? I suspect retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and historian William Astore didn’t. After all, he’s been writing for years at TomDispatch about how our former citizens’ military has, in those very wars, become the equivalent of a foreign legion. Fully militarizing the police and bringing the legionnaires home, a subject he explores today, seems like just the next obvious step in this country’s precipitous decline. Tom

“Light ‘Em Up”
Warrior-Cops Are the Law — and Above the Law — as Violence Grips America
By William J. Astore

From their front porches, regular citizens watched a cordon of cops sweep down their peaceful street in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Rankled at being filmed, the cops exceeded their authority and demanded that people go inside their houses. When some of them didn’t obey quickly enough, the order — one heard so many times in the streets of Iraqi cities and in the villages of Afghanistan — was issued: “Light ’em up.” And so “disobedient” Americans found themselves on the receiving end of non-lethal rounds for the “crime” of watching the police from those porches.

It’s taken years from Ferguson to this moment, but America’s cops have now officially joined the military as “professional” warriors. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder on May 25th, those warrior-cops have taken to the streets across the country wearing combat gear and with attitudes to match. They see protesters, as well as the reporters covering them, as the enemy and themselves as the “thin blue line” of law and order.

The police take to bashing heads and thrashing bodies, using weaponry so generously funded by the American taxpayer: rubber bullets, pepper spray (as Congresswoman Joyce Beatty of Ohio experienced at a protest), tear gas (as Episcopal clergy experienced at a demonstration in Washington, D.C.), paint canisters, and similar “non-lethal” munitions, together with flash-bang grenades, standard-issue batons, and Tasers, even as they drive military-surplus equipment like Humvees and MRAPs. (Note that such munitions blinded an eye of one photo-journalist.) A Predator drone even hovered over at least one protest.

Who needs a military parade, President Trump? Americans are witnessing militarized “parades” across the U.S.A. Their theme: violent force. The result: plenty of wounded and otherwise damaged Americans left in their wake. The detritus of America’s foreign wars has finally well and truly found its place on Main Street, U.S.A.

Cops are to blame for much of this mayhem. Video clips show them wildly out of control, inciting violence and inflicting it, instead of defusing and preventing it. Far too often, “to serve and protect” has become “to shoot and smack down.” It suggests the character of Eric Cartman from the cartoon South Park, a boy inflamed by a badge and a chance to inflict physical violence without accountability. “Respect my authoritah!” cries Cartman as he beats an innocent man for no reason.

So, let’s point cameras — and fingers — at these bully-boy cops, let’s document their crimes, but let’s also state a fact with courage: it’s not just their fault.

Who else is to blame? Well, so many of us. How stupid have we been to celebrate cops as heroes, just as we’ve been foolishly doing for so long with the U.S. military? Few people are heroes and fewer still deserve “hero” status while wearing uniforms and shooting bullets, rubber or otherwise, at citizens.

Answer me this: Who granted cops a specially-modified U.S. flag to celebrate “blue lives matter,” and when exactly did that happen, and why the hell do so many people fly these as substitute U.S. flags? Has everyone forgotten American history and the use of police (as well as National Guard units) to suppress organized labor, keep blacks and other minorities in their place, intimidate ordinary citizens protesting for a cleaner environment, or whack hippies and anti-war liberals during the Vietnam War protests?

Or think of what’s happening this way: America’s violent overseas wars, thriving for almost two decades despite their emptiness, their lack of meaning, have finally and truly come home. An impoverished empire, in which violence and disease are endemic, is collapsing before our eyes. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” America’s self-styled wartime president promised, channeling a racist Miami police chief from 1967. It was a declaration meant to turn any American who happened to be near a protest into a potential victim.

As such demonstrations proliferate, Americans now face a grim prospect: the chance to be wounded or killed, then dismissed as “collateral damage.” In these years, that tried-and-false military euphemism has been applied so thoughtlessly to innumerable innocents who have suffered grievously from our unending foreign wars and now it’s coming home.

How does it feel, America?

The End of Citizen-Soldiers, the End of Citizen-Cops

I joined the military in 1981, signing up in college for the Reserve Officer Training Corps, or ROTC. I went on active duty in 1985 and served for 20 years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. I come from a family of firefighters and cops. My dad and older brother were firefighters, together with my brother-in-law and nephew. My niece and her husband are cops and my sister worked for her local police department for years. My oldest friend, a great guy I’ve known for half a century, recently retired as a deputy sheriff. I know these people because they’re my people.

Many cops — I’d say most — are decent people. But dress almost any cop in combat gear, cover him or her in armor like a stormtrooper out of Star Wars, then set all of them loose on the streets with a mandate to restore “LAW & ORDER,” as our president tweeted, and you’re going to get stormtrooper-like behavior.

Sure, I’d wager that more than a few cops enjoy it, or at least it seems that way in the videos captured by so many. But let’s remind ourselves that the cops, like the rest of America’s systems of authority, are a product of a sociopolitical structure that’s inherently violent, openly racist, deeply flawed, and thoroughly corrupted by money, power, greed, and privilege. In such a system, why should we expect them to be paragons of virtue and restraint? We don’t recruit them that way. We don’t train them that way. Indeed, we salute them as “warriors” when they respond to risky situations in aggressive ways.

Here’s my point: When I put on a military uniform in 1985, I underwent a subtle but meaningful change from a citizen to a citizen-airman. (Note how “citizen” still came first then.) Soon after, however, the U.S. military began telling me I was something more than that: I was a warrior. And that was a distinct and new identity for me, evidently a tougher, more worthy one than simply being a citizen-airman. That new “warrior” image and the mystique that grew up around it was integral to, and illustrative of, the beginning of a wider militarization of American culture and society, which exploded after the 9/11 attacks amid the “big-boy pants” braggadocio of the administration of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney as they set out to remake the world as an American possession.

Why all the “warrior” BS? Why “Generation Kill” (one of those memorable phrases of the post-9/11 era)? Was it to give us a bit more spine or something to rally around after the calamity of those attacks on iconic American targets, or perhaps something to take pride in after so many disastrous wars over the last 75 years? It took me a while to answer such questions. Indeed, it took me a while to grasp that such questions were almost beside the point. Because all this warrior talk, whether applied to the military or the cops, is truly meant to separate us from the American people, to link us instead to wider systems of impersonal authority, such as the military-industrial-congressional complex.

By “elevating” us as warriors, the elites conspired to reduce us as citizens, detaching us from a citizen’s code of civics and moral behavior. By accepting the conceit of such an identity, we warriors and former warriors became, in a sense, foreign to democracy and ever more divorced from the citizenry. We came to form foreign legions, readily exploitable in America’s endless imperial-corporate wars, whether overseas or now here.

(Notice, by the way, how, in the preceding paragraphs, I use “we” and “us,” continuing to identify with the military, though I’ve been retired for 15 years. On rereading it, I thought about revising that passage, until I realized that was precisely the point: a career military officer is, in some way, always in the military. The ethos is that strong. The same is true of cops.)

In 2009, I first asked if the U.S. military had become an imperial police force. In 2020, we need to ask if our police are now just another branch of that military, with our “homeland” serving as the empire to be conquered and exploited. That said, let’s turn to America’s cops. They’re now likely to identify as warriors, too, and indeed many of them have served in America’s violent and endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. These days, they’re ever more likely to identify as well with authority, as defined and exercised by the elites for whom they serve as hired guns.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the warrior-mercenary mindset of the police has been fully exposed. For what was Floyd’s great “crime”? At worst, if true, an attempt at petty theft through forgery. He’d lost his job due to the Covid-19 crisis and, like most of us, was lucky if he saw a one-time check for $1,200, even as the rich and powerful enjoyed trillions of dollars in relief.

Rarely are the police sent to prosecute scofflaws in high places. I haven’t seen any bankers being choked to death on the street under an officer’s knee.  Nor have I seen any corporate “citizens” being choked to death by cops. It’s so much easier to hassle and arrest the little people for whom, if they’re black or otherwise vulnerable, arrest may even end in death.

By standing apart from us, militarized, a thin blue line, the police no longer stand with us.

A friend of mine, an Air Force retired colonel, nailed it in a recent email to me: “I used to — maybe not enjoy but — not mind talking to the police. It was the whole ‘community partners’ thing. Growing up and through college, you just waved at cops on patrol (they’d wave back!). Over the last five years, all I get is cops staring back in what I imagine they think is an intimidating grimace. They say nothing when you say hello. They are all in full ‘battle rattle’ even when directing traffic.”

When military “battle rattle” becomes the standard gear for street cops, should we be that surprised to hear the death rattle of black men like George Floyd?

Speaking Truth to Power Isn’t Nearly Enough

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying “speaking truth to power.” It’s meant as a form of praise. But a rejoinder I once read captures its inherent limitations: power already knows the truth — and I’d add that the powerful are all too happy with their monopoly on their version of the truth, thank you very much.

It’s not enough to say that the police are too violent, or racist, or detached from society. Powerful people already know this perfectly well. Indeed, they’re counting on it. They’re counting on cops being violent to protect elite interests; nor is racism the worst thing in the world, they believe, as long as it’s not hurting their financial bottom lines. If it divides people, making them all the more exploitable, so much the better. And who cares if cops are detached from the interests of the working and lower middle classes from which they’ve come? Again, all the better, since that means they can be sicked on protesters and, if things get out of hand, those very protesters can then be blamed. If push comes to shove, a few cops might have to be fired, or prosecuted, or otherwise sacrificed, but that hardly matters as long as the powerful get off scot-free.

President Trump knows this. He talks about “dominating” the protesters. He insists that they must be arrested and jailed for long periods of time. After all, they are the “other,” the enemy. He’s willing to have them tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets just so he can pose in front of a church holding a Bible. Amazingly, the one amendment he mentioned defending in his “law and order” speech just before he walked to that church was the Second Amendment.

And this highlights Trump’s skill as a wall-builder. No, I don’t mean that “big, fat, beautiful wall” along the U.S. border with Mexico. He’s proven himself a master at building walls to divide people within America — to separate Republicans from Democrats, blacks and other peoples of color from whites, Christians from non-Christians, fervid gun owners from gun-control advocates, and cops from the little people. Divide and conquer, the oldest trick in the authoritarian handbook, and Donald Trump is good at it.

But he’s also a dangerous fool in a moment when we need bridges, not walls to unite these divided states of ours. And that starts with the cops. We need to change the way many of them think. No more “thin blue line” BS. No more cops as warriors. No more special flags for how much their lives matter. We need but a single flag for how much all our lives matter, black or white, rich or poor, the powerless as well as the powerful.

How about that old-fashioned American flag I served under as a military officer for 20 years? How about the stars and stripes that draped my father’s casket after his more than 30 years of fighting fires, whether in the forests of Oregon or the urban tenements of Massachusetts? It was good enough for him and me (and untold millions of others). It should still be good enough for everyone.

But let me be clear: my dad knew how to put out fires, but once a house was “fully involved,” he used to tell me, there’s little you can do but stand back and watch it burn while keeping the fire from spreading.

America’s forever wars in distant lands have now come home big time. Our house is lit up and on fire. Alarms are being sounded over and over again. If we fail to come together to fight the fire until our house is fully involved, we will find ourselves — and what’s left of our democracy — burning with it.

A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, William Astore is a TomDispatch regular. He is proud to count many “first responders” in his immediate family. His personal blog is Bracing Views.

Copyright 2020 William J. Astore

 

Will the U.S. Military Hammer Strike the Citizen Nails?

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Caption at the Guardian: Members of an airborne military unit are deployed on the streets of Washington DC on Thursday. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

W.J. Astore

When the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems begin to look like nails.  This year alone, the U.S. government will spend roughly $740 billion on its military, though the real figure when you add in all costs exceeds a trillion dollars.  With so much “invested,” as the Pentagon likes to say, in that military, there’s a strong tendency to see it as the solution to the most stubborn problems.  All problems become nails either to be whacked down or pulled out and discarded depending upon which end of the military hammer our rulers choose to employ.

Americans are used to “our” military being used to hammer home American exceptionalism in faraway, foreign places.  But what about when that hammer is deployed to Main Street USA to hammer peaceful protesters into line?  Or, alternatively, to pull them out of the streets and into the jails?  That hammer doesn’t seem to be such a solid “investment,” does it?

It appears the Trump administration has now backed away from plans to commit regular federal troops to “dominate” protesters.  Opposition from retired generals and admirals like James Mattis, John Allen, and Mike Mullen may have helped.  But if and when protests become more widespread or embarrassing to Trump personally, don’t be surprised if the “bunker boy” calls again for troops to be committed, the U.S. Constitution be damned.  After all, he’s described peaceful protesters led by clergy in Washington, D.C. as “terrorists,” and we should all know by now what a “war on terror” looks like, led by generals like that same James Mattis.

Remember when a militarized hammer was a symbol of that Evil Empire, the Soviet Union?  Remember when violent suppression of peaceful protests was something “they” did, you know, the bad commies, in places like Hungary and Czechoslovakia?  As Paul Krugman has noted, today much of the GOP would cheer on Trump if he launched a military coup in the name of “law and order.”

Echoing this, one white American from Michigan told a reporter he “applauds” Trump’s crackdown and “fully supports” Trump if he orders federal troops into American streets to suppress protests.  In the same story from the Guardian, reporting from the white suburb of St Clair Shores, many residents “share the president’s world view that the police and national guard are heroically battling violent agitators, not brutally suppressing largely peaceful protesters.”

The story noted that “Several men who were part of a construction crew called the protests ‘stupid’ and a ‘waste of time and energy.’  Some even suggested Floyd was at fault for his death because he allegedly committed a crime, despite general worldwide outrage at the brutal manner of his killing and the criminal charges it has now brought against the officers involved.”

So, you have Americans who support the brutal murder of George Floyd, with the police acting as judge, jury, and executioner, simply because Floyd allegedly passed a counterfeit bill.  They even support a military crackdown, again in the name of “law and order.”

Who’s the evil empire now, America?

Last Night, Donald Trump Disqualified Himself

In the wake of mass protests and violence, Trump is threatening today to invoke the Insurrection Act, which would lead to deploying U.S. troops on active duty against American citizens. If you don’t think he’ll do this, or you think the troops will disobey his orders, think again. Trump boasted in 2016 that the military would follow his orders regardless of their legality, and he may well be proven right in the coming days.

Trump, hidden away in his bunker, hides his own weakness by calling others weak. And now he’s threatening to send U.S. troops in a war against their own mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, kith and kin.

Welcome to Amerika.

Bracing Views

Donald Trump Hail the Leader (Trump at FreedomFest, July 11, 2015 (AP Photo/John Locher)

W.J. Astore

As a retired military officer, I watched last night’s Republican debate from Detroit (transcript here) with a special focus on which candidate is qualified to lead the military as commander-in-chief.  I knew, of course, that Donald Trump had promised in the past to use torture against America’s enemies (last night, he called them “animals”), that he would pursue and kill not only terrorists but their families (apparently because the families always know, according to Trump, what their father/brother/sister is up to, as if there are no secrets in families).  Trump, in short, is an Old Testament “eye for an eye” man: if they behead us, we’ll torture and kill them, end of story.

But Trump was put on the spot when he was asked what he would do if the U.S. military failed to carry…

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