The Power of Hate and Fear

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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?

American Torture

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U.S. troops use the “water cure” in the Philippines, 1902

W.J. Astore

Back in 2009, I wrote a few articles on torture during the Bush/Cheney administration.  With Barack Obama elected on a vague platform of hope, change, and transparency, there was a sense torture would be outlawed and torturers would be called to account.  Obama did sign an executive order to outlaw torture — which really meant nothing more than that the U.S. would abide by international treaties and follow international law with respect to torture — but torturers were never called to account.  The failure to do so has left us with a new president, Donald Trump, who says he supports torture (though his Defense Secretary, James Mattis, does not), and a person nominated to head the CIA who enabled torture and helped to cover it up.

Here are a few points I made back in 2009.  We should consider these as Congress debates whether to place the CIA in the hands of a torturer.

Recently [2009] in the New York Times, Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti showed that the Bush administration, the CIA, and the Senate and House Intelligence Committees failed to ask for any historical context before approving so-called “harsh interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding, in 2002.  No one apparently knew, or wanted to know, that the U.S. had defined waterboarding as torture and prosecuted it as a war crime after World War II.  Did our leaders think the events of 9-11 constituted an entirely new reality, one in which historical precedent was rendered nugatory?

Perhaps so, but their failure to ask historically-based questions also highlights the narrowness of their intellectual training.  Like the accused Nazi judges before the bar in the movie Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), they asked themselves only what the law is (or what it became under John Ashcroft and John Yoo), not whether it is just.  If a legal brief authorized brutal methods such as waterboarding, who were they to question, let alone challenge, the (freshly minted) legal opinion?

Clearly, the leaders making and implementing decisions on torture constituted a single, self-referencing, self-identified Washington elite almost entirely divorced from thinking historically, let alone tragically.  And because they could think neither historically nor tragically, they found false comfort in picturing themselves as stalwart defenders of the nation, not recognizing the mesmerizing power of vengeance and hate.

Our elected officials who find history books too onerous would do well to invest three hours of their time to watch Judgment at Nuremberg.  They might learn that a compromised judiciary will uphold any action — discriminatory race laws, involuntary sterilization, even mass murder — all in the name of defending the people from supposedly apocalyptic threats.

Indeed, defending the country from apocalyptic threats is a popular line for those wishing to uphold the Bush Administration’s policy on torture.  After the tragedy of 9/11, and subsequent panic in the wake of Anthrax attacks, our leaders were compelled to “take the gloves off” in our defense, even compelled to exact vengeance as a way of deterring future attacks — or so these torture apologists claim.

In their haste to make America safe, Bush and Company effectively declared vengeance was theirs and not the Lord’s.  But the human lust for vengeance is blinding, even more so when it’s perceived as righteous.  Here our wrathful lawyers/politicians might consider the lessons of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Rigoletto.  The hunchbacked court jester, Rigoletto, delights in other people’s misfortune, and for this he is cursed by a cuckolded husband.  Soon, his own daughter, Gilda, the joy of his life, is kidnapped and despoiled, the first bitter fruits of the curse.  Despite Gilda’s pleas to forgive the transgressor, Rigoletto, blinded by his own murderous desire for vengeance, sets in motion a chain of events that ends with the sacrificial death of his beloved Gilda and the annihilation of any vestige of goodness in his tortured soul.

In Rigoletto, the desire for total vengeance produces total tragedy.  In Judgment at Nuremberg, man’s ability to justify the worst crimes in the name of “safeguarding the people” is memorably exposed and justly condemned.

What we need today in Washington are fewer leaders who base their decisions on vengeance empowered by legal briefs and more who are willing to embrace the toughest lessons to be gleaned from history and tragedy.  What we need today as well is our own version of Judgment at Nuremberg — our own special prosecutorial court — one that is unafraid to elevate justice, truth, and the value of a single human being above all other concerns — especially political ones.

A full accounting of the torture decisions made by the Bush Administration would serve powerfully to reassure Americans that their government is, in fact, transparent and accountable to the law.  Such a result would be more than advantageous: It would indirectly strengthen our national defense as well as people’s patriotism.  Far easier it is to trust a government that owns up to its mistakes than one that cloaks them in bombast and bromides.

Self-serving bromides that excuse torture as the price of keeping America safe from evil-doers must be dismissed.  Self-preservation is no excuse for torture or similar war crimes.  It’s easier to see the truth of this when you look at the abuses committed by countries other than one’s own.

Think, for example, of Germany in the opening weeks of World War I.  As John Horne and Alan Kramer have shown in German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (2001), German soldiers clearly committed atrocities against Belgian civilians.   But the Germans themselves refused to admit culpability.  As Germany’s Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, explained: “We are in a position of necessity and necessity knows no law.”  The court of history, however, has rendered a far different judgment.

When the argument from necessity failed to convince, the Bush administration disputed whether waterboarding actually was torture, even though American soldiers had been punished for it during the Philippine-American War.  Indeed, even in Nazi Germany, government functionaries tried to fight a rear-guard action against the Gestapo and its use of waterboarding.  In a 1979 article on “The Nazi Concentration Camps,” Henry Friedlander cites a complaint made by the Reich Minister of Justice in regards to a murder in 1934 at a concentration camp in Saxony: “The nature of the assault, especially the use of water torture,” the Reich Minister noted, “reveals a brutality and cruelty on the part of the perpetrator that is alien to German sensibilities and feelings.  These cruelties, reminiscent of oriental sadism, can neither be explained nor excused by even the most extreme form of hatred in battle.

If “water torture” was so clearly illegal and so utterly reprehensible to German legal authorities in 1934, even as they battled the baneful influence of Nazism, how can its true nature remain a matter of dispute among some former Bush administration functionaries?

We fancy ourselves to be a nation of laws that apply equally to all.  If our new president truly stands for hope and change, he needs to act appropriately.  “Hope” in this case means full exposure of torture and appropriate punishment for those who authorized and conducted it.  “Change” means accountability for all, even for (especially for) the highest ranking officials in government.

We need a “Truth Commission” to investigate torture.  Efforts to suppress the truth, even seemingly innocuous ones, like looking ahead instead of back, will only make the eventual revelations that much worse.  Delays in holding people accountable may even empower others to commit new war crimes in our name.  Such are the perils of refusing to confront the truth.

Here, the lessons of the French in Algiers continue to resonate.  Think back to the revelations of General Paul Aussaresses in 2001, which scandalized France.  Aussaresses unrepentantly confessed that, in attempting to suppress terrorism in Algeria in the 1950s, detainee abuse, torture, even murder became routine, first-choice, approaches.  The resort to torture simply begat more torture.

Investigators should look at whether this dynamic also applied to America in Afghanistan and Iraq.  How many of our counterterrorist experts became like General Aussaresses: Self-perceived “patriots” who believed torture and even murder were justified in the name of protecting the state?  After all, if the state’s essential purpose is to protect its citizens, and you’re dealing with an enemy that’s malevolently contumacious, as Al Qaeda appeared to be, what’s to stop avowed “patriots” from torturing suspects, especially when the state’s leaders have authorized harsh techniques and are pressing you for results?

In the case of the Bush administration, not only did torture apparently provide unreliable intelligence: It also abrogated America’s fidelity to international treaties that forbade torture, and compromised our own ethos of truth, justice, and the American way.

And in the case of the Obama administration, its failure to confront the legacy of torture and to prosecute those responsible helped to facilitate the rise of Trump, a man who boasts of favoring torture while nominating for high office officials who served as torture enablers and supporters.

The words “American” and “torture” are linked together.  Isn’t it time we separated them?

Gina Haspel: A Torturer at the CIA

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Gina Haspel: Just following orders?

W.J. Astore

President Trump has nominated Gina Haspel to be the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  Haspel had an important role in the torture regimen approved by the Bush/Cheney administration, and she worked to destroy videotaped evidence of the same.  What does it say about the United States that Haspel is now being rewarded both for enabling torture and for covering it up?

As Peter Van Buren writes at We Meant Well, “Unless our Congress awakens to confront the nightmare and deny Gina Haspel’s nomination as Director of the CIA, torture has already transformed us and so will consume us. Gina Haspel is a torturer. We are torturers. It is as if Nuremberg never happened.”

Back in December of 2008, I wrote about torture for Nieman Watchdog.  The title of my article was “Cheney says he approved waterboarding. Is that the end of the story?”  The header to my article read: “The vice president gave the go-ahead for tactics commonly regarded as torture. Was that a war crime or not? William J. Astore provides some background on the issue and urges the press to show that it too can do aggressive interrogations. And do them now, without waiting for a new administration or a new Congress.”

Naturally, our Congress and the press did very little, and the Obama administration chose to ignore torture, urging America to look forward, not backwards.  Hence no one was ever held accountable; indeed, it was whistle blowers who came out against torture who were punished.

Here is the rest of my article from 2008.  Sadly, over the last decade nothing has changed in the U.S.  Indeed, the nomination of Haspel to head the CIA proves only that it’s getting worse.

Is our sitting vice president a war criminal because he condoned torture?  In an interview on ABC News on December 15th [2008], Dick Cheney coolly admitted he had approved “harsh” and “aggressive” interrogation techniques, notably waterboarding, in an attempt to extract intelligence from known or suspected terrorists, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Vital intelligence gathered about Al Qaeda, Cheney claimed, vindicated his decision, though this is much disputed. Subsequently, Cheney claimed that waterboarding and other harsh techniques did not constitute torture; this categorical denial was balanced by a counterclaim that he would have been remiss had he not authorized aggressive techniques in an attempt to safeguard Americans.

For approving these techniques and for other practices, The New York Times has attacked Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and other Bush Administration officials. Calls have been issued for war crimes investigations. Are such calls warranted? Did Cheney, Rumsfeld, and others authorize techniques that constituted torture, and, if so, are they complicit in the crime?

Here, the Holocaust survivor, Jean Améry, and the political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, offer valuable insights. Améry, himself a victim of torture, wrote about it in At the Mind’s Limits (1980). Torture, he observed, was a monstrous immorality because it violated another person’s body, reducing it to a vessel of fear and pain. Under such distress, the victim confesses to anything, even the wildest fictions and fantasies, as Améry himself did when he was tortured.

In its simulation of death by drowning, waterboarding is intended to produce great fear and psychological dislocation. It may perhaps leave no physical traces, but the mental wounds it inflicts are something else altogether. Their insidious effects on victims were captured by Améry in his conclusion on torture:

Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world. The shame of destruction cannot be erased. Trust in the world, which already collapsed in part at the first blow, but in the end, under torture, fully, will not be regained …. It is fear that henceforth reigns over him. Fear—and also what is called resentments. They remain, and have scarcely a chance to concentrate into a seething, purifying thirst for revenge.

Torture, in short, alienates its victims from humanity and generates (or strengthens) vengeful resentments. Améry carried his own resentments as a burden to remind himself—and us—of the moral enormity of any attempt to demolish another human being’s will through torture. For Améry, such attempts are both crimes and mistakes because they sow the seeds of future acts of vengeance.

A further disturbing insight comes from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1964). Adolf Eichmann, desk-bound executioner and “Jewish expert” for the Third Reich, oversaw the deportation of Jews to their deaths during the Final Solution. A bureaucrat who never dirtied his own hands, Eichmann therefore judged himself to be less than fully responsible for the murder of millions. On this point, the judges at Eichmann’s trial reached a far different conclusion: “the degree of responsibility increases as we draw further away from the man who uses the fatal instrument with his own hands.” In crimes against humanity, degrees of separation from the dirty work only add to the offense.

Waterboarding is torture; Cheney and Rumsfeld approved it; and Améry and Arendt’s reflections suggest the immorality of, and culpability for, the crime. What now? Whether we find this distasteful or not, the press needs to show that it too can aggressively interrogate sources. Rather than waiting a month for an Obama Justice Department or a congressional investigation, the press should challenge incoming Obama administration officials now, together with new members of Congress. Outside legal experts should also be consulted. Does Baltasar Garzón—the Spanish judge who pursued Augusto Pinochet relentlessly—have an opinion? These are obvious leads for reporters.

To strengthen America’s moral authority, we need to reject the idea that demolishing our enemies’ resistance through torture is a necessary price of our safety. Let’s not balk at an expeditious and complete accounting of our mistakes—and of crimes committed in our name.

Islamophobia in the Trump Administration

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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.

America’s Phony Wars and the National Defense Strategy

Afghan National Army takes charge at Observation Post Mace
U.S. troops and outposts and flags are everywhere, but for whose interests, and at what cost?

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I address America’s real wars overseas and contrast them with the phony war in the so-called Homeland.  What I mean by “phony” is the lack of national mobilization for, and even interest in, these overseas wars.  These wars exist and persist; they are both ever-spreading and never-ending; yet few Americans outside of the military and the Washington beltway crowd have any stake in them.  Except when U.S. troops die or a spectacular bomb is used, the mainstream media rarely covers them.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has defined a new National Defense Strategy (NDS) that has only expanded America’s list of enemies and rivals.  A quick summary:

  1. Conventional conflict against peer enemies, e.g. Russia and China.
  2. Conventional conflict against “rogue” states, e.g. North Korea and Iran.
  3. Unconventional (anti-terror) operations, e.g. Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Niger, etc.

If that’s not enough, the Pentagon also seeks extended nuclear supremacy (at a cost of at least $1.2 trillion over the next few decades) and full-spectrum dominance for space and cyber as well as land, sea, and air.  As U.S. “defense” budgets continue to grow, there’s really no sense of limits, monetary or otherwise.  Rising budgets feed endless war, and vice-versa.  It’s a fail-safe recipe for imperial over-stretch and the decline if not collapse of America.

What follows is an excerpt from my latest article; you can read the entire article here at TomDispatch.com.

America’s New (Phony) National Defense Strategy

Even phony wars need enemies.  In fact, they may need them more (and more of them) than real wars do.  No surprise then that the Trump administration’s recently announced National Defense Strategy (NDS) offers a laundry list of such enemies.  China and Russia top it as “revisionist powers” looking to reverse America’s putative victory over Communism in the Cold War.  “Rogue” powers like North Korea and Iran are singled out as especially dangerous because of their nuclear ambitions.  (The United States, of course, doesn’t have a “rogue” bone in its body, even if it is now devoting at least $1.2 trillion to building a new generation of more usable nuclear weapons.)  Nor does the NDS neglect Washington’s need to hammer away at global terrorists until the end of time or to extend “full-spectrum dominance” not just to the traditional realms of combat (land, sea, and air) but also to space and cyberspace.

Amid such a plethora of enemies, only one thing is missing in America’s new defense strategy, the very thing that’s been missing all these years, that makes twenty-first-century American war so phony: any sense of national mobilization and shared sacrifice (or its opposite, antiwar resistance).  If the United States truly faces all these existential threats to our democracy and our way of life, what are we doing frittering away more than $45 billion annually in a quagmire war in Afghanistan?  What are we doing spending staggering sums on exotic weaponry like the F-35 jet fighter (total projected program cost: $1.45 trillion) when we have far more pressing national needs to deal with?

Like so much else in Washington in these years, the NDS doesn’t represent a strategy for real war, only a call for more of the same raised to a higher power.  That mainly means more money for the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and related “defense” agencies, facilitating more blitz attacks on various enemies overseas.  The formula — serial blitzkrieg abroad, serial sitzkrieg in the homeland — adds up to victory, but only for the military-industrial complex.

Lockdown America and School Shootings

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W.J. Astore

Five years ago, I remember talking about lockdown drills (or “active shooter drills”) with colleagues at Penn College.  Such drills were voluntary.  Basically, the drill involved locking the classroom door, moving students to the back of the classroom, and having them hunker down, away from windows, while keeping silent so as to avoid detection by a shooter roaming the halls.

I was against these drills.  I thought they added to the fear, and I chose not to do them.  But maybe I would do them today.

After one shooting massacre (I can’t recall if it was Virginia Tech in 2007 or Sandy Hook in 2012), locks were added to the classroom doors.  In theory, if I heard gunshots, I or one of my students could jump up and lock the door before a shooter got in.  But what if a determined shooter shot the lock out?

What a world we Americans live in.  Locked classrooms, lockdown drills for active shooters, and now the proposal to turn teachers into so many Harry Callahans (Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry) and our schools into “hardened” targets by arming teachers with pistols.  Perhaps we should keep an AR-15 in each classroom (alongside the fire extinguisher), with a sign that reads, “In case of emergency, break glass – then lock and load.”

President Trump has argued that select teachers be armed – following the NRA’s theory that a good man with a gun is the best insurance against a bad man with a gun.  It’s a crazy idea, but we live in a crazy country.  Among the worst parts of Trump’s proposal was his stingy suggestion that armed and trained teachers might earn “a little bit” of a bonus.  How generous of our brave commander-in-chief.

Think about that for a moment.  There is an active shooter (or shooters) in a school, armed with military-style assault weapons and perhaps protected by body armor.  Young people are running and screaming, bullets are flying, and in this bloody chaos, we place our faith in a teacher, perhaps armed with a 9mm pistol, thoroughly trained in shooting under combat conditions, willing to risk it all “for a little bit of a bonus.”

It’s a powerful fantasy: the cold bold Harry Callahan-like teacher, taking aim with his or her pistol and blowing away school intruders with perfect head shots.  And that’s exactly what it is: a fantasy.  As Belle Chesler, a teacher, put it at TomDispatch.com, “We are not warriors, we are teachers. We are not heroes, we are teachers.”

It’s one thing to shoot at paper targets on a gun range; it’s another thing entirely to fire accurately in combat when you’re outgunned and someone is firing back at you.  What if, during the chaos of shooting, a teacher accidentally shoots a few students?  So-called friendly fire incidents happen frequently in combat, despite the most careful troop training.

If you want more security guards in America’s schools, hire them.  Don’t try to turn teachers into cheap cut-rate guards.  Yet “a little bit of a bonus” for armed teachers is the best idea our stingy billionaire of a president can come up with.

As we saw in Parkland, Florida, even armed and trained deputies may hesitate before confronting a heavily-armed shooter.  How is your average teacher going to react? At least we know Trump will rush in, heel spurs and all, whether he’s armed or unarmed, to save the day.  Or so he says.

Most people, even when armed, will not rush toward the sound of gunfire.  We tend instinctively to freeze, to take cover, or to run.  It takes a combination of training, willpower, and courage to rush toward danger, often strengthened by teamwork and inspired by one or more leaders who set the example.  The problem is not as simple as “give a teacher a gun, and he or she will blow the bad guy away.”

In a country awash in weapons, there are no easy answers.  One model is to turn our schools into fortresses, complete with surveillance cameras and panic buttons and smoke ejectors in hallways, as in this “safe” school in Indiana.  Trump’s model is to arm select teachers for a tiny bonus.  Limited efforts at gun control, such as raising the age to purchase an assault rifle from 18 to 21, are like putting a Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound.  One thing is certain: better law enforcement is crucial, e.g. there were many warnings about the Parkland shooter that were dismissed or ignored.

Again, there are no easy answers.  And so Lockdown America is now our reality.

Update (3/9/18): In the wake of the Parkland shootings, Florida legislators have approved guns for teachers in the classroom, as well as more spending on school security.  Assault weapons, however, are not to be banned.  So the solution to bad men with guns is indeed good men with guns, according to Florida.  The NRA wins again.

How long before a teacher, teacher’s aide, or coach with a gun accidentally or intentionally hurts a student with a gun?  How long before the inevitable lawsuits result from this, the multi-million dollar settlements?  Will school districts be required to carry expensive insurance against gun shootings by educators?  Are taxpayers ready to pony up a lot more money to cover the costs of insurance premiums and lawsuits?

Why the Pentagon Gets So Much Money So Easily

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The five-sided puzzle palace on the Potomac is about to be flooded with new money

W.J. Astore

Over at Foreign Policy, there’s a good article on how the Pentagon gets so much money so easily.  Basically, the Pentagon complains about lack of “readiness” for war, and Congress caves.  But as the article’s author, Gordon Adams, notes, most of the boost in spending goes not to training and maintenance and other readiness issues but to expensive new weaponry:

But the big bucks, according to the Pentagon’s own briefing, will go into conventional military equipment. That means more F-35s and F-18s than planned, a new presidential helicopter, Navy surveillance planes and destroyers, Marine helicopters, space launch rockets, tank modifications, another Army multipurpose vehicle, and a joint tactical vehicle the Army, Marines, and Air Force can all use. Basically, the services will soon have shiny new hardware.

With its $160+ billion budgetary boost over the next two years, the U.S. military will soon have many more shiny toys, which pleases Congress (jobs) and of course the military-industrial complex (higher and higher profits).

All of this is par for the Pentagon course, yet there are other, cultural and societal, reasons why the Pentagon is winning all the budgetary battles at home.  Here are seven key reasons:

  1. The heroes narrative. Collectively and individually, U.S. troops have been branded as heroes. And who is churlish and ungenerous enough to underfund America’s heroes?
  2. Military weaponry has been rebranded as being all about our “safety” and “security.” With spillover into the Homeland, and even America’s classrooms (think about how guns for teachers are now being equated with safety for America’s children).
  3. Defense contractors increasingly influence (and even own) the media, ensuring “journalists” like Brian Williams will wax poetically about the inspiring beauty of weapons. Rarely do you hear sustained criticism from the mainstream media about wasteful spending at the Pentagon.
  4. At the same time, the mainstream media relies on “retired” senior military officers for analysis and commentary. Some of these men have links to defense contractors, and all of them are loath to criticize the military.  They are, in a word, conflicted.
  5. Throughout U.S. popular culture, military hardware is portrayed as desirable and “cool.” Think of all the superhero movies featuring jet fighters and other military hardware, or all the jets and helicopters flying over sports stadiums across the USA.  For that matter, think of all the video games that focus on war and weaponry.
  6. Related to (5) is a collective fantasy of power based on violence in war. Most Americans are powerless when it comes to politics and decision-making.  Here is where our “beautiful” weapons can serve as potent symbols for a largely impotent people.
  7. Finally, the ever-present climate of fear: fear of terrorists, immigrants, missiles from North Korea, Russian nukes, and so forth, even as the real killers in the USA (opioid abuse, vehicle accidents, shootings, bad or no healthcare, poor diets, climate-change-driven catastrophes, and of course diseases, some of which are preventable) are downplayed.

Defense spending used to be examined closely, with many programs exposed as wasteful.  This was common in the aftermath of the Vietnam War in the 1970s and early 1980s – remember Senator William Proxmire and his Golden Fleece awards?  Now, it seems there’s no such thing as wasteful spending.  It’s a remarkable change of narrative representing an amazing success story for the military-industrial complex.

It will take more than cutting the Pentagon’s budget to effect change.  America needs to change its mindset, an ethos in which weapons, even wars, are equated with safety and security and potency, and even occasionally with entertainment and fun.

In sum, the Pentagon is doing what it’s always done: issuing demands for more and more money.  It’s up to us (and Congress) to say “no.”