God, Country, Guns

mass shooting

W.J. Astore

Yesterday, I saw a sticker on a pickup truck that read “God, Country, Guns.”  To me, that sticker made as much sense as “God, Country, Hammers” or “God, Country, Bicycles.”  A gun is just that: a tool, an object, like a hammer or a bicycle, only much more dangerous in the wrong hands.

But many Americans don’t look at guns as tools, as objects, as a deadly technology that requires great care and also strict regulations.  They identify it with God and Country.  They see it as representing certain values, such as freedom and liberty and individuality.  For some men, guns are synonymous with masculinity.  They are symbols of potency.  Of agency.  They are worthy of protection, indeed of a lifelong vow, ’til death do us part.  Hence the catchphrase, “you can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

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This sacralization of the gun, its elevation as a totem of strength and virility, its hugely symbolic presence in American life, is an important reason why gun control efforts largely fail, even in the aftermath of horrendous mass shootings.  Reasoned and reasonable efforts to limit mass shootings, e.g. by banning military-style assault weapons, high-capacity clips, and bump stocks, are no match for people’s emotional — I daresay religious or spiritual — attachment to guns.

I’ve owned guns myself and have enjoyed firing everything from a pellet rifle to a .45-70 and from a .22 pistol to a .44 magnum.  As a historian of technology, I appreciate the history of guns as well as their aesthetic beauty.  (If you go to a gun show or hang around gun owners, you’ll often hear guns described as “beautiful.”)  But my appreciation for guns doesn’t translate to an affection for them.  And in the cause of greater public safety and a reduction in mass shootings, I’d like to see stricter regulations for certain guns and related accessories.

Again, here are three reasonable changes I’d like to see:

  1. No military-style assault or high-caliber sniper rifles.
  2. No high-capacity clips.
  3. No bump stocks or other devices to increase rate of fire.

Yet, no matter how reasonable these changes seem to most, organizations like the National Rifle Association will oppose them,* as will those who associate guns with God and Country and freedom and similar values.

Growing up in the 1970s, I remember reading “Field and Stream” and “Outdoor Life” (and an occasional “American Rifleman” too).  In the early ’80s, I wrote a paper on the history of hunting in America prior to the U.S. Civil War.  Until fairly recently, gun owners focused mainly on hunting and personal protection, using weapons like bolt-action or lever-action rifles, shotguns, and revolvers.  Rifles that I recall friends talking about or owning were .30-06 or .30-30.  Nobody talked about owning an AR-15 or AK-47 or similar military-style assault rifles with “banana” (high-capacity) clips and bump stocks.

America, of course, is a land of extremes, and one example is today’s gun-rights crowd, which attacks all regulations or restrictions as an assault on their “rights” or “way of life” as articulated in the Second Amendment.  But it didn’t use to be this way.  Indeed, it wasn’t this way when I was a teenager.  How did guns become so venerated, so cherished, so worshiped, in American culture?  So much so that people ride around today with stickers equating gun ownership with God and Country?

As long as our society continues to worship the gun, the more likely it is that we’ll suffer more mass shootings — and indeed shootings in general.

*Yes, in the aftermath of the Vegas Massacre, it’s true the NRA said it wouldn’t oppose “additional regulations” on bump stocks.  Note, however, that no ban is forthcoming from Congress.  The NRA are a savvy bunch…

Business as Usual at the Pentagon

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It keeps spinning and spinning …

W.J. Astore

The revolving door between major defense contractors and the Pentagon is spinning ever more rapidly, notes FP: Foreign Policy.  Here’s a telling report from last week:

McCain says enough, but does he mean it? During a hearing Thursday to vet several Trump administration nominees for top Pentagon jobs, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he was tired of seeing defense industry executives go to work in the Pentagon.

But he indicated he’ll support the Mark Esper, chief lobbyist for for Raytheon — the fourth largest defense contractor in the United States — for secretary of the Army, telling Esper his concerns “grew out of early consultations I had with the administration about potential nominations, including yours.” McCain added that “it was then that I decided I couldn’t support further nominees with that background, beyond those we had already discussed.”

Lots of defense industry execs already at work. But at least one more will soon pass through McCain’s Senate Armed Services Committee, however. At some point in the coming weeks, John C. Rood, senior vice president for Lockheed Martin International will testify for the under secretary of defense for policy job, the third highest position in the Defense Department.

The Senate has already approved former Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan to be deputy defense secretary — the second highest position in the Pentagon — and Ellen Lord, the former chief executive officer of Textron Systems, to be undersecretary of defense for acquisition.

In short, there are no fresh thinkers at the Pentagon: just men and women drawn mainly from the corporate world or from the ranks of military retirees (or both).  They’re hired because they know the system — but also because they believe in it.  They’re not going to rock the boat.  They believe in “staying the course.”

The result is a system with no new ideas.  Consider Afghanistan.  Sixteen years after the initial invasion after 9/11, American forces are still bogged down there.  As FP: Foreign Policy reports today, we finally have an official number for the latest mini-surge orchestrated by retired Generals John Kelly and James Mattis:

We have a surge number. After months of tapdancing around exactly how many more U.S. troops are are heading to Afghanistan, Monday’s request asks for $1.2 billion to support an additional 3,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Somehow, a few thousand extra U.S. troops are supposed to reverse the growth of the Taliban while improving Afghan security forces and reining in Afghan governmental corruption.  In short, sixteen years’ experience has meant nothing to U.S. decision makers.

It puts me to mind of a great description of military thinking from C.S. Forester’s “The General,” a remarkable novel about British generalship in World War I (and one of General John Kelly’s favorite books).  Here’s what Forester had to say about the persistence of military folly among the generals planning major offensives in that war:

“In some ways it was like the debate of a group of savages as to how to extract a screw from a piece of wood. Accustomed only to nails, they had made one effort to pull out the screw by main force, and now that it had failed they were devising methods of applying more force still, of obtaining more efficient pincers, of using levers and fulcrums so that more men could bring their strength to bear. They could hardly be blamed for not guessing that by rotating the screw it would come out after the exertion of far less effort; it would be a notion so different from anything they had ever encountered that they would laugh at the man who suggested it.”

Forester goes on to write that:

“The Generals round the table were not men who were easily discouraged–men of that sort did not last long in command in France. Now that the first shock of disappointment had been faced they were prepared to make a fresh effort, and to go on making those efforts as long as their strength lasted.”

That’s the U.S. military in Afghanistan in a nutshell: fresh efforts, but no fresh thinking.  How could it not be so?  The same generals are in charge, men like Mattis and Kelly, who led previous “surges,” backed by civilian leaders drawn from private military contractors, whose main priority it is to spend this year’s massive defense budget while ensuring next year’s budget will be even more massive.

There’s no incentive in the system for fresh thinking, and certainly none for saving money.  Instead, it’s all about showing “resolve,” even if resolve in this case means hammering and pulling away at so many screws.  And this even makes a weird sort of sense, for there’s a lot of profit to be made in the name of  developing better pincers and levers and fulcrums to tackle “screws” like Afghanistan.

Trump Talks About the Military as if It’s His Praetorian Guard

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Hail Trump? Includes wannabe American Emperor in Golf Cart.

W.J. Astore

President Donald Trump has a disturbing way of talking about the U.S. military.  Consider the following Trump quotation about the recent attack on U.S. troops in Niger:

“I have generals that are great generals,” Trump said. “I gave them authority to do what’s right so that we win. My generals and my military, they have decision-making ability. As far as the incident that we’re talking about [in Niger], I’ve been seeing it just like you’ve been seeing it. I’ve been getting reports.” [emphasis added]

For Trump, it’s not the American people’s military, it’s “my” military.  Generals are not Congressionally-appointed officers, they’re “my” generals.  Trump has a fundamental misunderstanding of his role as commander-in-chief, as well as the role of the U.S. military.  He sees himself as the big boss of “his” military, with generals as his personal employees whom he can order around and fire at will.

And by “order around,” I mean the issuance of orders regardless of their legality, a point Trump made back in March of 2016, in response to a debate question by Bret Baier:

BAIER: Mr. Trump, just yesterday, almost 100 foreign policy experts signed on to an open letter refusing to support you, saying your embracing expansive use of torture is inexcusable. General Michael Hayden, former CIA director, NSA director, and other experts have said that when you asked the U.S. military to carry out some of your campaign promises, specifically targeting terrorists’ families, and also the use of interrogation methods more extreme than waterboarding, the military will refuse because they’ve been trained to turn down and refuse illegal orders.

So what would you do, as commander-in-chief, if the U.S. military refused to carry out those orders?

TRUMP: They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me.

BAIER: But they’re illegal.

TRUMP: And — and — and — I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.

As I wrote then, Trump’s fundamental misunderstanding of leadership, and especially his boasts about the military obeying his orders irrespective of their legality, disqualified him as a presidential candidate.  Of course, Trump’s dictatorial statements didn’t deter his determined fans. Indeed, they elected him because they wanted a Strong Man, not because they feared one.

So here we are, with a dictator wannabe as president, treating the U.S. military as if it’s his personal Praetorian Guard.  If the Republic isn’t dead, its heartbeat is fading fast.  Meanwhile, the sordid and corrupt Empire of Trump – just by its endurance – grows ever stronger.

Bread and Circuses in Rome and America

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Games are hell

W.J. Astore

Back in June 2013, I wrote the following article on “Bread and Circuses in Rome and America.”  It flashed through my mind this morning because of Robert Lipsyte’s post today at TomDispatch.com on Trump, the NFL, violence, race, brain injuries, and patriotism.  I urge you to read it as well as Tom Engelhardt’s introduction, which cites the bread and circuses of the Roman Empire.

A key insight in my article below came from a correspondent, Amy Scanlon, who keenly observed that the Roman Imperium saw compassion, not violence, as a vice.  The gladiatorial games were meant to keep Romans at a fever pitch for war (with the bloody, murderous games being the next best thing to war).  It’s not much of a stretch to think of NFL violence as keeping Americans at a similar feverish pitch; and, not just the NFL, but the commercials during the games, which are often saturated with guns and violence and war.

Here’s my article, unchanged from 2013:

Bread and Circuses in Rome and America

The expression “bread and circuses“ captures a certain cynical political view that the masses can be kept happy with fast food (think Cartman’s “Cheesy Poofs” on South Park) and faster entertainment (NASCAR races, NFL games, and the like). In the Roman Empire, it was bread and chariot races and gladiatorial games that filled the belly and distracted the mind, allowing emperors to rule as they saw fit.

There’s truth to the view that people can be kept tractable as long as you fill their bellies and give them violent spectacles to fill their free time. Heck, Americans are meekly compliant even when their government invades their privacy and spies upon them. But there’s a deeper, more ominous, sense to bread and circuses that is rarely mentioned in American discourse. It was pointed out to me by Amy Scanlon.

In her words:

Basically ancient Rome was a society that completely revolved around war, and where compassion was considered a vice rather than a virtue… [The] Romans saw gladiatorial contests not as a form of decadence but as a cure for decadence. And decadence to the Romans had little to do with sexual behavior or lack of a decent work ethic, but a lack of military-style honor and soldierly virtues. To a Roman compassion was a detestable vice, which was considered both decadent and feminine. Watching people and animals slaughtered brutally [in the arena] was seen as a way to keep the civilian population from this ‘weakness’ because they didn’t see combat…

Scanlon then provocatively asks, “Could our society be sliding towards those Roman attitudes in a bizarre sort of way?”

I often think that America suffers from an empathy gap. We are simply not encouraged to put ourselves in the place of others. For example, how many Americans fancy the idea of a foreign power operating drones in our sovereign skies, launching missiles at gun-toting Americans suspected by this foreign power of being “militants“? Yet we operate drones in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, killing suspected militants with total impunity. Even when innocent women and children are killed, our emperors and our media don’t encourage us to have compassion for them. We are basically told to think of them as collateral damage, regrettable, perhaps, but otherwise inconsequential.

Certainly, our military in the last two decades has put new stress on American troops as “warriors” and “warfighters,” a view more consistent with the hardened professionals of the Roman Empire than with the citizen-soldiers of the Roman Republic. Without thinking too much about it, we’ve come to see our troops as an imperial guard, ever active on the ramparts of our empire. War, meanwhile, is seen not as a last course of defense but as a first course to preempt the evil designs of the many hidden enemies of America. Our troops, therefore, are our protectors, our heroes, the defenders of America, even though that “defense” treats the entire globe as a potential killing field.

Scanlon’s view of the Roman use of bread and circuses — as a way to kill compassion to ensure the brutalization of Roman civilians and thus their compliance (or at least their complacency) vis-à-vis Imperial expansion and domestic policing — is powerful and sobering.

At the same time, the Obama administration is increasingly couching violent military intervention in humanitarian terms. Deploying troops and tipping wars in our favor is done in the name of defeating petty tyrants (e.g. Khadafy in Libya; Is Assad of Syria next?). Think of it as our latest expression of “compassion.”

All things considered, perhaps our new national motto should be: When in America, do as the Roman Empire would do. Eat to your fill of food and violence, cheer on the warfighters, and dismiss expressions of doubt or dismay about military interventions and drone killings as “feminine” and “weak.”

At least we can applaud ourselves that we no longer torture and kill animals in the arena like the Romans did. See how civilized we’ve become?

The Dangerous Sophistry of Steve Bannon

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Bannon Wormtongue: Hiding behind the troops

W.J. Astore

After Republican Bob Corker had the guts to criticize President Trump for his bellicose rhetoric and incompetent management of U.S. foreign policy, Steve Bannon issued the following riposte:

“Bob Corker has trashed the commander in chief of our armed forces while we have young men and women in harm’s way.”

The indecency of Bannon’s argument is obvious.  According to Bannon, Corker’s criticism of Trump is tantamount to treason, because an attack on Trump is an attack on “our” troops “in harm’s way.”

If Bannon had his way, no one would be allowed to criticize Trump about foreign policy while U.S. troops are in harm’s way.  Since U.S. troops are deployed to more than 800 bases overseas and to more than 130 countries while incessantly fighting wars in places like Afghanistan, they are, in essence, always in harm’s way.  Thus, no criticism of our Great Leader would ever be allowed, which is convenient for Trump and Bannon Wormtongue.

It’s infuriating how men like Bannon attempt to squelch criticism of the president by hiding behind the troops.  Judging by his rhetoric, Bannon doesn’t want to live in a democracy; he’d much prefer a dictatorship.  Meanwhile, Trump’s riposte to Bob Corker focused on his height.  (Corker is roughly six inches shorter than Trump.)

Mr. Bannon, Trump is more mocker-in-chief than a commander.  And, in defending our chief mocker, your sophistic attempt to hide behind the troops was more than shameful.  It’s grotesque.

The Myths We Tell Ourselves

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General John Kelly

W.J. Astore

John Kelly, President Trump’s chief of staff and a retired Marine Corps general, held a press conference on Thursday to deny he’s quitting or that he’s about to be fired.  In passing, he referred to two common myths in America that go almost completely unexamined.  (By “myth” I mean a defining belief, held in common, and usually without question.)

The first myth: That the United States has “the greatest military on the planet.”  The second myth: That the U.S. military’s value is its “deterrent factor.”

The U.S. certainly has a powerful military, one that costs roughly a trillion dollars a year, when all national security expenses are tallied (e.g. Homeland Security, intelligence, nuclear weapons, and interest on the national debt associated with these expenditures, among other costs).  But is it “the greatest”?  More importantly, why should a democracy and a people allegedly dedicated to peace and freedom be so proud of possessing “the greatest military on the planet”?

There was a time when Americans were proud of having a small standing military.  There was a time when Americans were proud of protesting arms sales around the world by “merchants of death.”  Those days ended with the Cold War.  Now, America leads the world in military spending and arms exports; no other country comes close.  Is this something to boast about?

How about General Kelly’s claim of the military’s “deterrent factor”?  The U.S. military has 800 bases around the world, with U.S. special operations forces involved in more than 130 countries.  Is this all about “deterrence”?  Is the U.S. deterring or preventing wars in Libya, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, among other places throughout the greater Middle East and Africa?  That hardly seems to fit the facts on the ground.

Of course, the media focused on Kelly’s message that he isn’t being fired and that President Trump is both “thoughtful” and a “man of action.”  His claims about the “world’s greatest military” and its strong deterrent value went unreported and unquestioned.  Such claims are now as “American” as baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.

And so it goes …

Trump Tackles the NFL!

When it Comes to the NFL, Trump Should be Flagged and Ejected for Unnecessary Roughness

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Taking a stand by taking a knee: NFL players, including Colin Kaepernick (#7)

W,J. Astore

President Trump has once again attacked the NFL for exactly the wrong reasons.  He wants NFL owners to fire players who take a knee during the national anthem.  Their sin, according to Trump, is disrespecting the American flag.  Trump also complains that the game has gotten soft, that big and exciting hits of the past are now penalized, so much so that today’s game is boring precisely because it’s insufficiently violent.

Nonsense.  First, few players dare to use the game as a platform for protest, perhaps because they fear being blackballed like Colin Kaepernick, the talented quarterback who can’t find a job because he took a knee in protest against racism.  Second, the NFL is awash in patriotic displays, everything from gigantic flags and military flyovers to special events to honor the troops.  Just one example: During the opening game of this season, uniformed troops waving flags ran out on the field ahead of the New England Patriots as the team emerged from the tunnel.  What are troops in camouflaged combat uniforms doing on the field of play?

With respect to violence, the NFL has only lately begun haltingly to address crippling injuries, especially brain abnormalities due to recurrent hits and concussions.  Watching an NFL game is often an exercise in medical triage, as players are carted off the field with various injuries.  A new feature this season is a tent on the sidelines that injured players may now enter to be treated away from the incessantly probing eyes of sideline cameras.  Careers in the NFL are often cut short by crippling injuries, yet Trump claims the game is going down the tubes because it’s not violent enough.

Trump represents a minority view (I believe), but nevertheless a vocal one.  Given his narcissism and the grudges he carries, one wonders if he attacks the NFL because of his failed bid to acquire the Buffalo Bills team back in 2014.

Football is the most popular sport in America.  It speaks volumes about our culture.  That Trump sees it as insufficiently violent and insufficiently patriotic — and that he’s cheered for making these claims — points to the gladiatorial nature of America’s imperial moment. Bread and circuses at home, wars abroad.  And U.S. politicians who fiddle while the world burns.

Update: Trump’s comments have drawn a response during the first NFL game today (played in England).  Here’s the headline at the Washington Post:  NFL Week 3: Ravens, Jaguars respond to President Trump’s comments by linking arms, kneeling during anthem.  It will be interesting to see how other teams respond today and during Monday night football.