Militarism Run Mad

W.J. Astore

Remember President Biden’s request for $33 billion in “aid” to Ukraine? That $33 billion package has become $40 billion and has already been approved by the House. More than half of this “aid” is in the form of weapons or in support of deploying more U.S. troops and equipment to Europe. And even that $40 billion isn’t high enough for some members of the Senate, who are calling for even more “aid,” i.e. more spending at the expense of the American taxpayer that will likely serve to prolong the Russia-Ukraine War.

More and more money for war recalls a famous quip by Winston Churchill in the age of navalism, when industrial interests in the UK pushed for more and more battleships to be built so that Britain could continue to rule the waves and not be slaves.

As Churchill famously said: The Admiralty had demanded six ships; the economists offered four; and we finally compromised on eight.

America has embraced a militarized Keynesianism that is very good indeed for weapons makers like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. It’s also very good for the Pentagon, whose budget projections keep rising when they should be falling.

Think about it. Overall, the Russian military hasn’t yet distinguished itself in Ukraine, and the longer the war lasts, the weaker that military becomes. If the U.S. military budget was actually based on an honest assessment of threats, the budget should be decreasing as Russia becomes less of a threat.

Another interesting aspect of this is that it’s mainly been Republicans voting against the $40 billion package in “aid.” Democrats, no matter how “progressive,” are eagerly voting for it, even as inflation soars in America and people struggle to make ends meet.

Perhaps it’s time to build more battleships to help the poor and struggling? We can house the unhoused in ships!

Housing for the unhoused! The HMS Dreadnought battleship

Listening to Noam Chomsky and Julian Assange

W.J. Astore

I’ve caught a couple of videos featuring Noam Chomsky and Julian Assange and want to share insights I gleaned from them.

Let’s start with Julian Assange, currently being punished for being a journalist who actually challenges powerful people by telling uncomfortable truths. When asked what the number one enemy is, Assange replies that it’s ignorance. People are ignorant because the vast majority of the media are “awful,” relying on deliberate distortion and lies to advance narratives that reinforce the already powerful. As Assange notes, nearly every war is the result of lies facilitated by the mainstream media. This is unsurprising, since the media has been coopted by the military-industrial complex. Generally, people don’t like wars (surprise!), but it’s relatively easy to lie and manipulate most people into supporting them.

You can see why Assange had to be locked up in a maximum security prison and effectively gagged.

Awful media coverage is not just about lying; it’s also about eliding the truth. Consider blanket coverage of the Russia-Ukraine War and contrast that with the dearth of coverage of an ongoing genocide in Yemen, of slave markets in Libya, of starvation in Afghanistan, of U.S. occupation of oil fields in Syria. How can you speak out against the latter when there’s a relentless and all-consuming focus on Ukraine as the good guy and Russia and Putin as pure evil?

Chomsky’s insights into the media complement those of Assange. Media talking heads, Chomsky notes, are screened and selected for their obedience and conformity: their willingness to be subordinate, to go along to get along. They are boot-licking careerists, essentially, who learn quickly that there are certain things you just don’t say. And if you should stray and start to color outside the lines, you are slapped back into line, and if that doesn’t take, your crayons are confiscated and you’re demoted, fired, or otherwise silenced. Think again of the Iraq War in 2003 and how Phil Donahue was fired, Jesse Ventura was hired then put on ice because NBC belatedly discovered he was antiwar, Ashleigh Banfield was demoted for speaking out against the one-sided, pro-America coverage that almost entirely ignored Iraqi casualties and suffering, and so on.

Jesse Ventura, paid millions of dollars not to have a show because he was critical of the Iraq War

Along with these insights, I have an anecdote of my own. I know a skilled journalist who actually courts controversy by challenging prevailing narratives. He told me how he visited a journalism school and spoke to a class of would-be journalists. Did these student-journalists want to be the next Assange, or even Woodward or Bernstein of Watergate fame? Of course not! They aspire to be well-paid anchors or opinion-mongers on cable news, or so my friend told me. They’re in it for the money, for access to power, for fame. They’re not in it to call the powerful to account; they want to be among the powerful, and profiting from the same.

And that’s the way it is, as Walter Cronkite might have said.

Dominating the World Stage

W.J. Astore

“Make love, not war!” on the helmet of Marine Corporal Billy Winn, Vietnam, 1967 (Photo by William Eggleston)

In the 1960s, in response to the Vietnam War, young Americans vowed to “make love, not war.” Ever since 9/11, if not before, America has a new vow: Make War, Not Love.

The American empire believes it must dominate the world stage. Partly this is due to hubris unleashed by the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. As Colin Powell put it that year:

“We no longer have the luxury of having a threat to plan for. What we plan for is that we’re a superpower. We are the major player on the world stage with responsibilities around the world, with interests around the world.”

When you define the world as your “stage” and define yourself as a military and economic “superpower,” as the major player, a hubristic and militaristic foreign policy almost naturally follows. And so it has.

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I detail five reasons why America remains addicted to hubristic war; what follows is an excerpt that focuses on America’s vision of itself as the best and purest actor on the world stage. Please read the entire article at TomDispatch.com.

***

About 15 years ago, I got involved in a heartfelt argument with a conservative friend about whether it was wise for this country to shrink its global presence, especially militarily. He saw us as a benevolent actor on the world stage.  I saw us as overly ambitious, though not necessarily malevolent, as well as often misguided and in denial when it came to our flaws. I think of his rejoinder to me as the “empty stage” argument.  Basically, he suggested that all the world’s a stage and, should this country become too timid and abandon it, other far more dangerous actors could take our place, with everyone suffering. My response was that we should, at least, try to leave that stage in some fashion and see if we were missed.  Wasn’t our own American stage ever big enough for us?  And if this country were truly missed, it could always return, perhaps even triumphantly. 

Of course, officials in Washington and the Pentagon do like to imagine themselves as leading “the indispensable nation” and are generally unwilling to test any other possibilities.  Instead, like so many ham actors, all they want is to eternally mug and try to dominate every stage in sight. 

In truth, the U.S. doesn’t really have to be involved in every war around and undoubtedly wouldn’t be if certain actors (corporate as well as individual) didn’t feel it was just so profitable. If my five answers above were ever taken seriously here, there might indeed be a wiser and more peaceful path forward for this country. But that can’t happen if the forces that profit from the status quo — where bellum (war) is never ante- or post- but simply ongoing — remain so powerful. The question is, of course, how to take the profits of every sort out of war and radically downsize our military (especially its overseas “footprint”), so that it truly becomes a force for “national security,” rather than national insecurity. 

Most of all, Americans need to resist the seductiveness of war, because endless war and preparations for more of the same have been a leading cause of national decline.  One thing I know: Waving blue-and-yellow flags in solidarity with Ukraine and supporting “our” troops may feel good but it won’t make us good.  In fact, it will only contribute to ever more gruesome versions of war. 

A striking feature of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that, after so many increasingly dim years, it’s finally allowed America’s war party to pose as the “good guys” again. After two decades of a calamitous “war on terror” and unmitigated disasters in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and so many other places, Americans find themselves on the side of the underdog Ukrainians against that “genocidal” “war criminal” Vladimir Putin.  That such a reading of the present situation might be uncritical and reductively one-sided should (but doesn’t) go without saying. That it’s seductive because it feeds both American nationalism and narcissism, while furthering a mythology of redemptive violence, should be scary indeed.

Yes, it’s high time to call a halt to the Pentagon’s unending ham-fisted version of a world tour.  If only it were also time to try dreaming a different dream, a more pacific one of being perhaps a first among equals. In the America of this moment, even that is undoubtedly asking too much. An Air Force buddy of mine once said to me that when you wage war long, you wage it wrong. Unfortunately, when you choose the dark path of global dominance, you also choose a path of constant warfare and troubled times marked by the cruel risk of violent blowback (a phenomenon of which historian and critic Chalmers Johnson so presciently warned us in the years before 9/11).

Washington certainly feels it’s on the right side of history in this Ukraine moment. However, persistent warfare should never be confused with strength and certainly not with righteousness, especially on a planet haunted by a growing sense of impending doom.

Abortion and Men

W.J. Astore

“My body, my choice” is a common refrain for women in the pro-choice movement. I happen to agree with it. What women choose to do when they get pregnant is truly none of my business.

Photo by Alex Brandon, AP

Yet the abortion debate swirls and twists and roars as if men played absolutely no role in getting women pregnant. As if all pregnancies were some kind of immaculate conceptions.

Our society and culture puts almost all the onus and responsibility (and, often enough, blame) on women for getting pregnant. For pro-lifers, a woman, once pregnant, is then obligated to have a baby and care for it until adulthood, else put it up for adoption.

But what about the father’s obligation? After all, unless we’re talking the Virgin Mary here, she didn’t get pregnant alone. (And even the Virgin Mary had help of a godly kind.)

I’d have a bit more tolerance for pro-lifers if they’d agreed to these rules:

  1. The biological father is also responsible, financially and legally and otherwise, for raising the baby until adulthood.
  2. If the father isn’t married to the mother in question, and the mother keeps the child, he is legally obligated to pay for child support. For argument’s sake, let’s say he’s obligated to contribute 20% of his pay until the child reaches the age of eighteen.

If men were held legally and morally responsible for all the children they fathered, and this was strictly enforced by society and the state, with deadbeat dads becoming society’s new outcasts, I wonder how long it would take for abortion to be made legal and universally available in America?

Border Insecurity and Worthy Refugees

W.J. Astore

Today as I was checking out at Job Lots, the cashier asked me if I wanted to donate money for Ukrainian refugee relief.  I thought quickly of the $33 billion Biden already wants from us for Ukraine and politely said “no thanks.”

Then I read Todd Miller’s new article at TomDispatch.com on the security-industrial complex along the U.S. border with Mexico and reflected on all those people risking their lives to cross the border into America, most of them refugees from wars and climate change and violence and the like.  I’ve never been asked by a company or a cashier for that matter to contribute to their relief.  Indeed, when the issue of refugees comes up along the Southern border, it’s always about more money for Homeland Security and more border control agents and surveillance technology (including drones and robotic dogs, as Miller notes), all to keep the “bad” people out of America, all those “illegals” who allegedly want to take American jobs while doing violence to vulnerable Americans.

Remarkably, Miller notes in his article how the Biden administration is following basically the same approach to border security as the Trump administration. The only real difference is that Biden is relying less on physical walls and more on “virtual” ones (towers, sensors, cameras, drones, etc.). This is hardly surprising when you consider Kamala Harris went south of the border to deliver a singular message to would-be asylum seekers. Her message to them: Do not come.

Land of the free, home of the brave?

As Miller notes in his article, you can count on one thing: America’s border with Mexico will never be secure, no matter how much we spend, because insecurity and overhyped “threats” sell very well indeed.

Is America really the home of the brave, given our fears of invasions, whether from “dangerous” brown- and black-skinned people coming up from the south or all those gangster Russians and sneaky Chinese allegedly scheming against us?

If we want to help refugees facing violence and starvation, we don’t have to look as far as Ukraine. Depending on where you live in America, you might only have to look just beyond the wall or fence or surveillance tower in front of you. As you do, you might ponder why we’re not sending $33 billion to help them survive. Is it because they’re not killing Russians with American-made weaponry?

Pimps of War

W.J. Astore

You would think that a U.S. president would have better things to do than to tour and tout a missile-production facility in Alabama, but then you’d be forgetting the power of the military-industrial complex and the profitability of war. Yesterday, President Biden toured a Lockheed plant that makes the Javelin missile, which I’m sure is working overtime given the number of missiles (about 5500) this country has shipped to Ukraine in its war against Russia. I was asked for a quick comment before Biden’s visit, and here’s what I came up with:

You don’t defuse a war by sending more and more weapons to the war zone.  You don’t send a message of peace by visiting a missile-making facility.  President Biden spoke of inspiring other nations with the power of our example, but he’s opting instead for examples of our power.  In so doing, he’s betraying his own promise to America and to the world.  Statesmanship, not brinksmanship, is what’s required to end the disastrous war in Ukraine.  Negotiation, not militarism, is the correct path forward.  But it’s hard indeed to play the statesman and to foster negotiation when you pimp yourself out to the weapons makers.

Incredibly, or perhaps not so incredibly, Noam Chomsky has praised Donald Trump for his willingness to call for a negotiated settlement to the war. By contrast, the Biden administration appears content to let the war drag on in the cause of weakening Russia. In short, Ukraine is the administration’s proxy, and Biden & Company are willing to fight and die to the last Ukrainian while supplying plenty of arms to the same. Indeed, the latest aid package for $33 billion for Ukraine includes $20 billion in weaponry.

Should weapons really be identified as “aid”? No matter. The U.S. media is pimping for war, the president is visiting missile plants and praising the wonders of our weapons and how many Russian tanks they’ve destroyed, and we’re all supposed to accept this as business as usual in America. Which it is.

Abortion in America

Today’s big news: a “leaked” memo from the Supreme Court suggests that the court will overturn Roe v. Wade. My first thought is that the leak was deliberate, a way to get people used to the idea that a decision that has stood for 50 years is being negated by a packed and biased court. Let people yell and tweet and fulminate, but that’s all you get to do.

My second thought: the main victims of this law will be women without financial means. Women of means will always have access to abortion; they can travel to another state, pay a private doctor, etc. It’s poorer women, often of color, who will suffer the most.

But who cares about them, right? Justice is blind to them, never for them.

What a partisan joke the Supreme Court is in the U.S. And they have the gall to argue that the court is apolitical!

Bracing Views

W.J. Astore

I truly believe that if men got pregnant, abortion would be free, legal, and readily available across the United States.

But men don’t get pregnant, so the idea of carrying an unwanted baby to term is mainly theoretical for them. How easy it is, then, to outlaw abortion while claiming to be pro-life.

Having been raised Catholic, I was taught abortion is murder. It’s that blunt. As the Church was teaching me that, it was allowing predatory priests to molest children. There was even a predatory priest assigned to my parish when I was young. So I’m not too keen on the moral authority and teachings of the Church here. Again, if priests got pregnant, I truly believe abortion would be accepted within the Church. Perhaps it would be justified by arguing that priests, first and foremost, have to serve God and the Church and therefore shouldn’t be…

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On Censorship and Disinformation

W.J. Astore

The best way to combat disinformation is with more and better information.  Censorship isn’t the answer.

The Biden administration has reached a different conclusion, creating a “Disinformation Governance Board” under the Department of Homeland Security. This “board” is headed by Nina Jankowicz, an unelected official and an apparent partisan hack. One example: she dismissed the infamous Hunter Biden laptop story as a “fairy tale” involving a “laptop repair shop”; it’s now been confirmed that Hunter’s laptop was real, and so too was that repair shop.

Democrats, of course, don’t have exclusive rights to censorship. Republicans always seem to be calling for books to be banned or education to be policed. But the real problem is much larger than partisan hackery and bickering. Efforts at censorship are all around us, couched as a way of protecting us from harmful lies and other forms of disinformation. Yet, as the comedian Jimmy Dore points out, the government isn’t that concerned about protecting you from lies; it is, however, deeply concerned with denying you access to certain truths, truths that undermine governmental authority and the dominant narrative.

As a retired U.S. military officer and as a historian, the most insidious lies and disinformation I’ve encountered have come from the government. Consider the lies revealed by Daniel Ellsberg and his leak of the Pentagon Papers. Consider the war crimes revealed by Chelsea Manning, aided by Julian Assange and Wikileaks. Consider the lies revealed in the recent Afghan War Papers. Consider the lies about the presence of WMD in Iraq, lies that were used to justify the disastrous Iraq War. The government, in short, is a center of lies and disinformation, which is precisely why we need an adversarial media, one that is willing to ferret out truth. Instead, we’re being offered a governmental Ministry of Truth in the form of a “Disinformation Governance Board.”

All things being equal, a democratic society thrives best when speech is as free as possible, trusting in the people to sort fact from fiction, and sound theories from blatant propaganda. And there’s the rub: trusting in the people. Because the government doesn’t trust us (remember Hillary Clinton’s comment about all those irredeemable deplorables), even as the government is often at pains to mislead and misinform us. As maverick journalist I.F. “Izzy” Stone said, all governments lie. It’s truly nonsensical, then, to allow the government to police what is true and what is “disinformation.”

But don’t we need some censorship in the name of safety or security or mental health or whatever? Sorry: censorship is rarely about safety, and it most certainly doesn’t serve the needs of the vulnerable. Instead, it serves the needs of the powerful, those who already possess the loudest megaphones in the public square.

But doesn’t someone like Donald Trump deserve to be censored because he spreads disinformation? Which is the bigger problem: Trump or censorship? I happen to think Trump is a divisive con man, but it was a bad precedent for Twitter to have banned him from tweeting. The bigger problem wasn’t Trump’s tweets but the media’s obsessive coverage of them in pursuit of ratings. The way to combat a blowhard like Trump is to ignore him, and to correct him when needed. To combat his lies with the truth. We don’t need a governmental Ministry of Truth to police the tweets of a former president. Not when the government is often the biggest liar.

The solution isn’t censorship but an active, engaged, and informed citizenry, assisted by a fourth estate, the press, that is truly independent and adversarial to power. But the weakening of education in America, combined with a fourth estate that is deeply compromised by the powerful and often in bed with the government, means that these democratic checks on power are less and less effective. Hence calls for quick yet dangerous “solutions” like censorship, where the censors (governmental boards, private corporations) are opaque and almost completely unaccountable to the people.

Unless your goal is to give the already powerful a monopoly on speech, censorship is not the answer.

Joe Biden’s Early Report Card

Joe Biden and his alleged nemesis

W.J. Astore

Joe Biden’s been president for a year and a few months; it’s time to award him a provisional grade for his performance as president.  Here are a few factors to consider:

* Biden ended the Afghan War.  Sure, it was a disordered ending, a pell-mell evacuation, a calamitous collapse that saw Afghan innocents killed in a final drone strike (nothing new about that, I suppose).  But he did end a twenty-year war, so credit to him for that.

* Biden was able to pass an infrastructure bill, though it was disappointingly small.  Still, America truly needs to invest in its infrastructure (rather than, for example, nuclear weapons), so credit again to Biden.

* Biden kept his promise to nominate an African American woman to the Supreme Court.  The court is still overwhelmingly conservative, so her presence won’t make a critical difference to decisions, but dare I say, it’s about time the court looked more like the diversity of America.

* When Biden announced his candidacy, the first thing he did was meet with Comcast executives and other high and mighty media- and business-types.  He told them nothing would fundamentally change under his administration.  That’s a campaign promise he’s kept.

* Another promise Biden has kept is sizable increases to the Pentagon’s budget.  If you’re part of the military-industry complex, you’re probably more than satisfied with Biden’s budgets.

* Finally, some people assert that Biden has stood firm against Russia and Putin, marshaling the West against Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine.  I beg to differ with this assertion, but more on that below.

Now, let’s look at where Biden has failed or proven to be a disappointment.

* Biden has kept none of his progressive promises, which is unsurprising, given his track record as a senator from Delaware.  No $15 federal minimum wage.  No public option for health care.  No student debt relief (just moratoriums on payments).  On these and similar issues, Biden’s defenders place the blame on obstinate “centrist” senators like Manchin and Sinema, or they blame the Senate Parliamentarian for ruling against the $15 wage increase due to a technicality.  It’s all special pleading.  When their own Senate Parliamentarian got in their way, the Republicans simply replaced that unelected person with someone more tractable.  Chuck Schumer could easily have done the same.  Manchin and Sinema can be cajoled or coerced if Biden had the will to do so.  But “centrist” Democrats adore Manchin and Sinema because they serve as convenient scapegoats for why Biden can’t be more progressive.

* Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan died a meaningless death, but, once again, this was more by design.  Recall Biden’s key promise that nothing would fundamentally change under his administration.

* Again, withdrawing from the Afghan War was a sound decision, but it was poorly implemented.

* The Russia-Ukraine War: Biden has gone all-in with his military approach to the war, meaning more money for the Pentagon, more weapons for Ukraine, harsh sanctions that hit ordinary Russians the hardest, and rhetoric that declares Putin to be a genocidal war criminal.  Diplomatic efforts have taken a back seat to efforts to effect regime change in Russia.  Some people may see this as tough and hard- minded; I see it as provocative and incredibly foolhardy.  Brinksmanship with Russia risks nuclear war, with Biden’s harsh rhetoric leaving little room for a negotiated settlement.  More than a few people see the U.S. as weakening Russia in a proxy war in which Biden is willing to fight to the last Ukrainian.  Toughness is not about more weapons and war; it’s about finding ways to build fewer weapons and to end war.

* Inflation is reaching new highs and many Americans are struggling economically, but Biden’s main approach here has been to blame Putin.  Unlike Harry Truman, the buck never stops with Joe Biden.

* The Biden team made a disastrous choice for his vice president.  Biden has no affinity with Kamala Harris, and Harris herself has wilted on the world stage.  High staff turnover suggests she’s a polarizing figure and a poor boss.  The only good thing about Harris, from the Biden perspective, is that people dislike her more than they do the president.

* Biden’s unpopularity.  Predictions for the midterm elections this November are dire for Democrats.  It’s possible, even likely, Republicans will regain both the Senate and House, leaving Biden a lame duck for his final two years in office.  Few if any Democratic candidates are seeking Biden’s support or planning to ride his coattails to victory.

* Biden’s mental status.  Biden will be 80 this November.  I’m not an expert on dementia.  But I’ve seen plenty of speeches by Biden where he’s become forgetful; when he can’t remember words; when he gets frustrated.  I feel for him.  He can read from a teleprompter but get him off-script and he becomes unpredictable and says nonsensical things.  Occasionally, he looks lost or at a loss.  Something similar was happening to Ronald Reagan in his second term.

Always looming in the background and foreground is the party of Trump.  To my mind, the best way to defeat rightwing popular authoritarianism is to have leaders who answer to the people rather than to corporations and oligarchs.  The Democratic Party is venal and corrupt, which allows Trump & Co. an opening to play a (false) populist card.  The Democrats, as presently led by Biden, Schumer, Pelosi, et al., are easy foils for authoritarian dipshits like Trump.

Trump would be far less dangerous if the Democrats actually believed and acted on their various campaign promises to help people rather than oligarchs and corporations.

The ultimate grade of Joe Biden’s presidency will depend on whether through his actions and inaction he gives Trump an opening to win the presidency in 2024.  Assuming Trump wins again in 2024, Biden’s final grade will be an “F.”

His provisional grade?  First, I’m not a Democrat.  Second, I despise Trump, a man totally unqualified to serve the public in any capacity.  Overall, my grade for Biden is a “C-,” and on less generous days I’m inclined to give him a “D.”  He is a man who’s often out of his depth, a man well past his prime, a man who perhaps shouldn’t have run in 2020 and who most certainly shouldn’t run again in 2024, given the demands of the presidency. (Recall that when Biden suggested a run for the presidency in 2020, Obama told him, You don’t have to do this, Joe. Not exactly an inspiring vote of confidence!)

What do you think, readers?  What grade has Joe Biden earned so far in your opinion?  

Prediction for 2014: War Will Continue to Find A Way

War has much been on my mind lately, with a scene from “Gone with the Wind” flashing through my brain. It’s when Ashley Wilkes, the paragon of honor and decency, reflects on war: “Most of the miseries of the world were caused by wars,” Wilkes says. “And when the wars were over, no one ever knew what they were about.”

Powerful words coming from a Southern cavalier who went off to do his duty in the “War Between the States.” Interestingly, the South often called it “the war of northern aggression,” whereas the North used “the war of southern rebellion.” War is a remarkably protean thing, and often completely unpredictable in its duration and effects. We often can’t even agree how to name it.

Here’s a repost from the end of 2013, nine distant years ago. Who could have predicted America’s Afghan War would finally be over, only to be replaced by a new Cold War and massive weapons shipments to Ukraine in a war with Russia that could also last for years, spreading miseries for reasons that are already disputed and which may yet prove unfathomable.

Bracing Views

“War is like love; it always finds a way.”  So wrote Bertolt Brecht, and when it comes to American politics and foreign policy in 2014, you can bet on Brecht being right.  There is no major anti-war party in the USA today.  Despite claims to fiscal austerity, Democrats and Republicans fall over themselves to fully fund the Pentagon and its ongoing wars across the globe.  Our misguided involvement in Afghanistan lurches into its thirteenth year with promises that it won’t end until 2024 at the earliest.  The only certainty for 2014 is more dead bodies, more casualties of war, more money wasted.

Barbara Tuchman, a historian who knew how to write for the educated public, was right in pointing out the persistence of folly in history.  A heavily militarized U.S. foreign policy is an illustration of that.  Our country continues to seek global dominance through militarized measures, perhaps…

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