A Very American Coup

Will we see scenes like this on Main Street USA?
Will we see scenes like this on Main Street USA?

W.J. Astore

Back in January 2010, I wrote the following article for TomDispatch.com on the possibility of “a very American coup” occurring in conjunction with the presidential election of 2016. I make no claims to prescience: for example, the “great recession” I predicted didn’t come to pass, and there are as yet very few protesters in the streets, and no concerted movement rallying disaffected troops that I’m aware of. Nevertheless, I think there’s validity to some of my predictions in this article, and I encourage your comments in the section below on the path our country is treading as we head into 2016.

Here is the article, unchanged from when I wrote it nearly six years ago.

A Very American Coup
Coming Soon to a Hometown Near You
By William J. Astore

The wars in distant lands were always going to come home, but not this way.

It’s September 2016, year 15 of America’s “Long War” against terror.  As weary troops return to the homeland, a bitter reality assails them: despite their sacrifices, America is losing.

Iraq is increasingly hostile to remaining occupation forces.  Afghanistan is a riddle that remains unsolved: its army and police forces are untrustworthy, its government corrupt, and its tribal leaders unsympathetic to the vagaries of U.S. intervention.  Since the Obama surge of 2010, a trillion more dollars have been devoted to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and other countries in the vast shatter zone that is central Asia, without measurable returns; nothing, that is, except the prolongation of America’s Great Recession, now entering its tenth year without a sustained recovery in sight.

Disillusioned veterans are unable to find decent jobs in a crumbling economy.  Scarred by the physical and psychological violence of war, fed up with the happy talk of duplicitous politicians who only speak of shared sacrifices, they begin to organize.  Their motto: take America back.

Meanwhile, a lame duck presidency, choking on foreign policy failures, finds itself attacked even for its putative successes.  Health-care reform is now seen to have combined the inefficiency and inconsistency of government with the naked greed and exploitative talents of corporations.  Medical rationing is a fact of life confronting anyone on the high side of 50.  Presidential rhetoric that offered hope and change has lost all resonance.  Mainstream media outlets are discredited and disintegrating, resulting in new levels of information anarchy.

Protest, whether electronic or in the streets, has become more common — and the protestors in those streets increasingly carry guns, though as yet armed violence is minimal.  A panicked administration responds with overlapping executive orders and legislation that is widely perceived as an attack on basic freedoms.

Tapping the frustration of protesters — including a renascent and mainstreamed “tea bag” movement — the former captains and sergeants, the ex-CIA operatives and out-of-work private mercenaries of the War on Terror take action.  Conflict and confrontation they seek; laws and orders they increasingly ignore.  As riot police are deployed in the streets, they face a grim choice: where to point their guns?  Not at veterans, they decide, not at America’s erstwhile heroes.

A dwindling middle-class, still waving the flag and determined to keep its sliver-sized portion of the American dream, throws its support to the agitators.  Wages shrinking, savings exhausted, bills rising, the sober middle can no longer hold.  It vents its fear and rage by calling for a decisive leader and the overthrow of a can’t-do Congress.

Savvy members of traditional Washington elites are only too happy to oblige.  They too crave order and can-do decisiveness — on their terms.  Where better to find that than in the ranks of America’s most respected institution: the military?

A retired senior officer who led America’s heroes in central Asia is anointed.  His creed: end public disorder, fight the War on Terror to a victorious finish, put America back on top.  The United States, he says, is the land of winners, and winners accept no substitute for victory.  Nominated on September 11, 2016, Patriot Day, he marches to an overwhelming victory that November, embraced in the streets by an American version of the post-World War I German Freikorps and the police who refuse to suppress them.  A concerned minority is left to wonder (and tremble) at the de facto military coup that occurred so quickly, and yet so silently, in their midst.

It Can Happen Here, Unless We Act

Yes, it can happen here.  In some ways, it’s already happening.  But the key question is: at this late date, how can it be stopped?  Here are some vectors for a change in course, and in mindset as well, if we are to avoid our own stealth coup:

1. Somehow, we need to begin to reverse the ongoing militarization of this country, especially our ever-rising “defense” budgets.  The most recent of these, we’ve just learned, is a staggering $708 billion for fiscal year 2011 — and that doesn’t even include the $33 billion President Obama has requested for his latest surge in Afghanistan.  We also need to get rid of the idea that anyone who suggests even minor cuts in defense spending is either hopelessly naïve or a terrorist sympathizer.  It’s time as well to call a halt to the privatization of military activity and so halt the rise of security contractors like Xe (formerly Blackwater), thereby weakening the corporate profit motive that supports and underpins the American version of perpetual war.  It’s time to begin feeling chastened, not proud, that we’re by far the number one country in the world in arms manufacturing and the global arms trade.

2. Let’s downsize our global mission rather than endlessly expanding our military footprint.  It’s time to have a military capable of defending this country, not fighting endless wars in distant lands while garrisoning the globe.

3. Let’s stop paying attention to major TV and cable networks that rely onretired senior military officers, most of whom have ties both to the Pentagon and military contractors, for “unbiased” commentary on our wars.  If we insist on fighting our perpetual “frontier” wars, let’s start insisting as well that they be covered in all their bitter reality: the death, the mayhem, the waste, the prisons, and the torture.  Why is our war coverage invariably sanitized to “PG” or even “G,” when we can go to the movies anytime and see “R” rated, pornographically violent films?  And by the way, it’s time to be more critical of the government’s and the media’s use of language and propaganda.  Mindlessly parroting the Patriot Act doesn’t make you patriotic.

4. It’s time to elect a president who doesn’t surround himself with senior “civilian” advisors and ambassadors who are actually retired military generals and admirals, one who won’t accept a Nobel Peace Prize by defending war in theory and escalating it in practice.

5. Let’s toughen up.  Let’s stop deferring to authority figures who promise to “protect” us while abridging our rights.  Let’s stop bowing down before men and women in uniform, before they start thinking that it’s their right to be worshipped and act accordingly.

6. Let’s act now to relieve the sort of desperation bred by joblessness and hopelessness that could lead many — notably male workers suffering from the “He-Cession” — to see a militarized solution in “the homeland” as a credible last resort.  It’s the economy, stupid, but with Main Street’s health, not Wall Street’s, in our focus.

7. Let’s take Sarah Palin and her followers seriously.  They’re tapping into anger that’s real and spreading.  Don’t let them become the voices of the angry working (and increasingly unemployed) classes.

8. Recognize that we face real enemies in our world, the most powerful of which aren’t in distant Afghanistan or Yemen but here at home.  The essence of our struggle to sustain our faltering democracy should not be against “terrorists,” with their shoe and crotch bombs, but against various powerful, perfectly legal groups here whose interests lie in a Pentagon that only grows ever stronger.

9. Stop thinking the U.S. is uniquely privileged.  Don’t take it on faith that God is on our side.  Forget about God blessing America.  If you believe in God, get out there and start trying to earn His blessing through deeds.

10. And, most important of all, remember that fear is the mind-killer that makes militarism possible.  Ramping up “terror” is an amazingly effective way of shredding our Constitution.  Putting our “safety” above all else is asking for trouble.  The only way we’ll be completely safe from the big bad terrorists, after all, is when we’re all living in a maximum security state.  Think of walking down the street while always being subject to a “full-body scan.”

That’s my top 10 things we need to do.  It’s a daunting list and I’m sure you have a few ideas of your own.  But have faith.  Ultimately, it all boils down to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s words to a nation suffering through the Great Depression: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.  These words came to mind recently as I read the following missive from a friend and World War II veteran who’s seen tough times:

“It’s very hard for me to accept how soft the American people have become. In 1941, with the western world under assault by powerful and deadly forces, and a large armada of ships and planes attacking us directly, I never heard a word of fear as we faced three powerful nations as enemies. Sixteen million of us went into the military with the very real possibility of death and I never once heard of fear, except from those exposed to danger. Now, our people let [their leaders] terrify them into accepting the destruction of our economy, our image in the world, and our democracy… All this over a small group of religious fanatics [mostly] from Saudi Arabia whom we kowtow to so we can drive 8-cylinder SUV’s.  Pathetic!

“How many times have I stood in ‘security lines’ at airports and when I complained of the indignity of taking off shoes and not having water and the manhandling of passengers, have well educated people smugly said to me, ‘Well, they’re just keeping us safe.’ I look at the airport bullshit as a training ground to turn Americans into docile sheep in a totalitarian state.”

A public conditioned to act like sheep, to “support our troops” no matter what, to cower before the idea of terrorism, is a public ready to be herded.  A military that’s being used to fight unwinnable wars is a military prone to return home disaffected and with scores to settle.

Angry and desperate veterans and mercenaries already conditioned to violence, merging with “tea baggers” and other alienated groups, could one day form our own Freikorps units, rioting for violent solutions to national decline.  Recall that the Nazi movement ultimately succeeded in the early 1930s because so many middle-class Germans were scared as they saw their wealth, standard of living, and status all threatened by the Great Depression.

If our Great Recession continues, if decent jobs remain scarce, if the mainstream media continue to foster fear and hatred, if returning troops are disaffected and their leaders blame politicians for “not being tough enough,” if one or two more terrorist attacks succeed on U.S. soil, wouldn’t this country be well primed for a coup by any other name?

Don’t expect a “Seven Days in May” scenario.  No American Caesar will return to Washington with his legions to decapitate governmental authority.  Why not?  Because he won’t have to.

As long as we continue to live in perpetual fear in an increasingly militarized state, we establish the preconditions under which Americans will be nailed to, and crucified on, a cross of iron.

Copyright 2010 William J. Astore

Tourists of Empire

On the road again ...
On the road again …

W.J. Astore

I recently received an update from the National Priorities Project reminding me of this startling fact:

“The president announced last week that American troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond the planned withdrawal at the end of 2016. This is a devastating blow. We’ve already spent $716 billion and counting on the war in Afghanistan alone, plus countless lives lost and derailed.”

Of course, not the same American troops will “remain” in Afghanistan until 2017 (or 2024, or who knows what year).  U.S. troops, intelligence operatives, privatized paramilitaries, and assorted imperial straphangers are constantly rotating in and out of war zones around the world, sometimes on yearly tours, often on much shorter ones.  This reality got me to thinking about American imperialism as a peculiar form of global tourism.  All those repetitive, fairly short-term, “tours” to foreign countries, followed by new American tour groups (fresh deployments of new combat units).  The result is needless repetition, endless waste, and flat learning curves for Americans.  For the locals who have to endure America’s “tours,” the results are often far worse — and unlike Americans they usually can’t get on a boat or helicopter or jet and leave.

I was stimulated to write this new article on America’s “tourists of empire,” which appears at TomDispatch.com today.  You can read it in full here.  I’ve included some excerpts below.  I hope this article provides a contrary perspective on U.S. military efforts around the world.

Tourists of Empire: America’s Peculiar Brand of Global Imperialism

W.J. Astore.  Courtesy of TomDispatch.com.

The United States is a peculiar sort of empire.  As a start, Americans have been in what might be called imperial denial since the Spanish-American War of 1898, if not before.  Empire — us?  We denied its existence even while our soldiers were administering “water cures” (aka waterboarding) to recalcitrant Filipinos more than a century ago.  Heck, we even told ourselves we were liberating those same Filipinos, which leads to a second point: the U.S. not only denies its imperial ambitions, but shrouds them in a curiously American brand of Christianized liberation theology.  In it, American troops are never seen as conquerors or oppressors, always as liberators and freedom-bringers, or at least helpers and trainers.  There’s just enough substance to this myth (World War II and the Marshall Plan, for example) to hide uglier imperial realities.

Denying that we’re an empire while cloaking its ugly side in missionary-speak are two enduring aspects of the American brand of imperialism, and there’s a third as well, even if it’s seldom noted.  As the U.S. military garrisons the planet and its special operations forces alone visit more than 140 countries a year, American troops have effectively become the imperial equivalent of globetrotting tourists.  Overloaded with technical gear and gadgets (deadly weapons, intrusive sensors), largely ignorant of foreign cultures, they arrive eager to help and spoiling for action, but never (individually) staying long…

Call it Imperial Tourist Syndrome, a bizarre American affliction that creates its own self-sustaining dynamic.  To a local, it might look something like this: U.S. forces come to your country, shoot some stuff up (liberation!), take some selfies, and then, if you’re lucky, leave (at least for a while).  If you’re unlucky, they overstay their “welcome,” surge around a bit and generate chaos until, sooner or later (in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, much, much later), they exit, not always gracefully (witness Saigon 1975 or Iraq 2011).

And here’s the weirdest thing about this distinctly American version of the imperial: a persistent short-time mentality seems only to feed its opposite, wars that persist without end.  In those wars, many of the country’s heavily armed imperial tourists find themselves sent back again and again for one abbreviated tour of duty after another, until it seems less like an adventure and more like a jail sentence.

The paradox of short-timers prosecuting such long-term wars is irresolvable because, as has been repeatedly demonstrated in the twenty-first century, those wars can’t be won.  Military experts criticize the Obama administration for lacking an overall strategy, whether in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere.  They miss the point.  Imperial tourists don’t have a strategy: they have an itinerary.  If it’s Tuesday, this must be Yemen; if it’s Wednesday, Libya; if it’s Thursday, Iraq …

It was a dynamic already obvious five decades ago in Vietnam: a ticket-punching mentality that involved the constant rotation of units and commanders; a process of needless reinvention of the most basic knowledge as units deployed, bugged out, and were then replaced by new units; and the use of all kinds of grim, newfangled weapons and sensors, everything from Agent Orange and napalm to the electronic battlefield and the latest fighter planes and bombers — all for naught.  Under such conditions, even the U.S. superpower lacked staying power, precisely because it never intended to stay.  The “staying” aspect of the Vietnam War was often referred to in the U.S. as a “quagmire.”  For the Vietnamese, of course, their country was no “big muddy” that sucked you down.  It was home.  They had little choice in the matter; they stayed — and fought.

Combine a military with a tourist-like itinerary and a mentality to match, a high command that in its own rotating responsibilities lacks all accountability for mistakes, and a byzantine, top-heavy bureaucracy, and you turn out to have a surefire recipe for defeat.  And once again, in the twenty-first century, whether among the rank and file or at the very top, there’s little continuity or accountability involved in America’s military presence in foreign lands.  Commanders are constantly rotated in and out of war zones.  There’s often a new one every year.  (I count 17 commanders for the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan, the U.S.-led military coalition, since December 2001.) U.S. troops may serve multiple overseas tours, yet they are rarely sent back to the same area.  Tours are sequential, not cumulative, and so the learning curve exhibited is flat…

At some level, the U.S. military knows it’s screwed.  That’s why its commanders tinker so much with weapons and training and technology and tactics.  It’s the stuff they can control, the stuff that seems real in a way that foreign peoples aren’t (at least to us).  Let’s face it: past as well as current events suggest that guns and how to use them are what Americans know best.

But foreign lands and peoples?  We can’t control them.  We don’t understand them.  We can’t count on them.  They’re just part of the landscape we’re eternally passing through — sometimes as people to help and places to rebuild, other times as people to kill and places to destroy.  What they aren’t is truly real.  They are the tourist attractions of American war making, sometimes exotic, sometimes deadly, but (for us) strangely lacking in substance.

And that is precisely why we fail.

Groundhog Day in America’s War on Terror

It's always sunny for war ...
It’s always sunny for war …

W.J. Astore

In America’s war on terror, the groundhog always sees its own shadow, meaning six (or more) years of additional war. War is indeed the new normal in America, as I argue in this article today for TomDispatch.com

War Is the New Normal
Seven Deadly Reasons Why America’s Wars Persist
By William J. Astore

It was launched immediately after the 9/11 attacks, when I was still in the military, and almost immediately became known as the Global War on Terror, or GWOT.  Pentagon insiders called it “the long war,” an open-ended, perhaps unending, conflict against nations and terror networks mainly of a radical Islamist bent.  It saw the revival of counterinsurgency doctrine, buried in the aftermath of defeat in Vietnam, and a reinterpretation of that disaster as well.  Over the years, its chief characteristic became ever clearer: a “Groundhog Day” kind of repetition.  Just when you thought it was over (Iraq, Afghanistan), just after victory (of a sort) was declared, it began again.

Now, as we find ourselves enmeshed in Iraq War 3.0, what better way to memorialize the post-9/11 American way of war than through repetition.  Back in July 2010, I wrote an article for TomDispatch on the seven reasonswhy America can’t stop making war.  More than four years later, with the war on terror still ongoing, with the mission eternally unaccomplished, here’s a fresh take on the top seven reasons why never-ending war is the new normal in America.  In this sequel, I make only one promise: no declarations of victory (and mark it on your calendars, I’m planning to be back with seven new reasons in 2019).

1.  The privatization of war: The U.S. military’s recourse to private contractors has strengthened the profit motive for war-making and prolonged wars as well.  Unlike the citizen-soldiers of past eras, the mobilized warrior corporations of America’s new mercenary moment — the Halliburton/KBRs (nearly $40 billion in contracts for the Iraq War alone), the DynCorps ($4.1 billion to train 150,000 Iraqi police), and the Blackwater/Xe/Academis ($1.3 billion in Iraq, along with boatloads of controversy) — have no incentive to demobilize.  Like most corporations, their business model is based on profit through growth, and growth is most rapid when wars and preparations for more of them are the favored options in Washington.

Freedom isn’t free,” as a popular conservative bumper sticker puts it, and neither is war.  My father liked the saying, “He who pays the piper calls the tune,” and today’s mercenary corporations have been calling for a lot of military marches piping in $138 billion in contracts for Iraq alone, according to the Financial Times.  And if you think that the privatization of war must at least reduce government waste, think again: the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan estimated in 2011 that fraud, waste, and abuse accounted for up to $60 billion of the money spent in Iraq alone.

To corral American-style war, the mercenaries must be defanged or deflated.  European rulers learned this the hard way during the Thirty Years’ War of the seventeenth century.  At that time, powerful mercenary captains like Albrecht von Wallenstein ran amok.  Only Wallenstein’s assassination and the assertion of near absolutist powers by monarchs bent on curbing war before they went bankrupt finally brought the mercenaries to heel, a victory as hard won as it was essential to Europe’s survival and eventual expansion.  (Europeans then exported their wars to foreign shores, but that’s another story.)

2.  The embrace of the national security state by both major parties:Jimmy Carter was the last president to attempt to exercise any kind of control over the national security state.  A former Navy nuclear engineer who had served under the demanding Admiral Hyman Rickover, Carter cancelled the B-1 bomber and fought for a U.S. foreign policy based on human rights.  Widely pilloried for talking about nuclear war with his young daughter Amy, Carter was further attacked for being “weak” on defense.  His defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980 inaugurated 12 years of dominance by Republican presidents that opened the financial floodgates for the Department of Defense.  That taught Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council a lesson when it came to the wisdom of wrapping the national security state in a welcoming embrace, which they did, however uncomfortably.  This expedient turn to the right by the Democrats in the Clinton years served as a temporary booster shot when it came to charges of being “soft” on defense — until Republicans upped the ante by going “all-in” on military crusades in the aftermath of 9/11.

Since his election in 2008, Barack Obama has done little to alter the course set by his predecessors.  He, too, has chosen not to challenge Washington’s prevailing catechism of war.  Republicans have responded, however, not by muting their criticism, but by upping the ante yet again.  How else to explain House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress in March?  That address promises to be a pep talk for the Republicans, as well as a smack down of the Obama administration and its “appeasenik” policies toward Iran and Islamic radicalism.

Serious oversight, let alone opposition to the national security state by Congress or a mainstream political party, has been missing in action for years and must now, in the wake of the Senate Torture Report fiasco (from which the CIAemerged stronger, not weaker), be presumed dead.  The recent midterm election triumph of Republican war hawks and the prospective lineup of candidates for president in 2016 does not bode well when it comes to reining in the national security state in any foreseeable future.

3.  “Support Our Troops” as a substitute for thought. You’ve seen them everywhere: “Support Our Troops” stickers.  In fact, the “support” in that slogan generally means acquiescence when it comes to American-style war.  The truth is that we’ve turned the all-volunteer military into something like aforeign legion, deploying it again and again to our distant battle zones and driving it into the ground in wars that amount to strategic folly.  Instead of admitting their mistakes, America’s leaders have worked to obscure them by endlessly overpraising our “warriors” as so many universal heroes.  This may salve our collective national conscience, but it’s a form of cheap grace that saves no lives — and wins no wars.

Instead, this country needs to listen more carefully to its troops, especially the war critics who have risked their lives while fighting overseas.  Organizations like Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace are good places to start.

4.  Fighting a redacted war.  War, like the recent Senate torture report, is redacted in America.  Its horrors and mistakes are suppressed, its patriotic whistleblowers punished, even as the American people are kept in a demobilized state.  The act of going to war no longer represents the will of the people, as represented by formal Congressional declarations of war as the U.S. Constitution demands.  Instead, in these years, Americans were told togo to Disney World (as George W. Bush suggested in the wake of 9/11) and keep shopping.  They’re encouraged not to pay too much attention to war’s casualties and costs, especially when those costs involve foreigners with funny-sounding names (after all, they are, as American sniper Chris Kyle so indelicately put it in his book, just “savages”).

Redacted war hides the true cost of a permanent state of killing from the American people, if not from foreign observers. Ignorance and apathy reign, even as a national security state that is essentially a shadow governmentequates its growth with your safety.

5.  Threat inflation: There’s nothing new about threat inflation.  We saw plenty of it during the Cold War (nonexistent missile and bomber gaps, for example).  Fear sells and we’ve had quite a dose of it in the twenty-first century, from ISIS to Ebola.  But a more important truth is that fear is a mind-killer, a debate-stifler.

Back in September, for example, Senator Lindsey Graham warned that ISIS and its radical Islamic army was coming to America to kill us all.  ISIS, of course, is a regional power with no ability to mount significant operations against the United States.  But fear is so commonplace, so effectively stoked in this country that Americans routinely and wildly exaggerate the threat posed by al-Qaeda or ISIS or the bogeyman du jour.

Decades ago, as a young lieutenant in the Air Force, I was hunkered down inCheyenne Mountain during the Cold War.  It was the ultimate citadel-cum-bomb-shelter, and those in it were believed to have a 70% likelihood of surviving a five-megaton nuclear blast.  There, not surprisingly, I found myself contemplating the very real possibility of a thermonuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, a war that would have annihilated life as we knew it, indeed much of life on our planet thanks to the phenomenon of nuclear winter.  You’ll excuse me for not shaking in my boots at the threat of ISIS coming to get me.  Or of Sharia Law coming to my local town hall.  With respect to such fears, America needs, as Hillary Clinton said in an admittedly different context, to “grow a pair.”

6.  Defining the world as a global battlefield: In fortress America, all realms have by now become battle spheres.  Not only much of the planet, the seas, air, and space, as well as the country’s borders and its increasingly up-armored police forces, but the world of thought, the insides of our minds. Think of the 17 intertwined intelligence outfits in “the U.S. Intelligence Community” and their ongoing “surge” for information dominance across every mode of human communication, as well as the surveillance of everything.  And don’t forget the national security state’s leading role in making cyberwar a reality. (Indeed, Washington launched the first cyberwar in history by deploying the Stuxnet computer worm against Iran.)

Think of all this as a global matrix that rests on war, empowering disaster capitalism and the corporate complexes that have formed around the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and that intelligence community. A militarized matrix doesn’t blink at $1.45 trillion dollars devoted to the F-35, a single under-performing jet fighter, nor at projections of $355 billion over the next decade for “modernizing” the U.S. nuclear arsenal, weapons that Barack Obama vowed to abolish in 2009.

7.  The new “normal” in America is war: The 9/11 attacks happened more than 13 years ago, which means that no teenagers in America can truly remember a time when the country was at peace.  “War time” is their normal; peace, a fairy tale.

What’s truly “exceptional” in twenty-first-century America is any articulated vision of what a land at peace with itself and other nations might be like.  Instead, war, backed by a diet of fear, is the backdrop against which the young have grown to adulthood.  It’s the background noise of their world, so much a part of their lives that they hardly recognize it for what it is.  And that’s the most insidious danger of them all.

How do we inoculate our children against such a permanent state of war and the war state itself?  I have one simple suggestion: just stop it.  All of it.  Stop making war a never-ending part of our lives and stop celebrating it, too.  War should be the realm of the extreme, of the abnormal.  It should be the death of normalcy, not the dreary norm.

It’s never too soon, America, to enlist in that good fight!

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), is a TomDispatch regular. His D.Phil. is in Modern History from the University of Oxford. He’s just plain tired of war and would like to see the next politician braying for it be deployed with a rifle to the front lines of battle. He edits the blog The Contrary Perspective.

 

Rulers’ Ideas Rule

Beware the bearded one!
Beware the bearded one!

W.J. Astore

I can’t remember where exactly, but I stumbled across this apothegm of Karl Marx:

“In every era, the ideas of the rulers are the ruling ideas.”

Striving for even more brevity, I truncated it to rulers’ ideas rule.

Contrarians of the world should unite to identify and challenge these ruling ideas. When they serve only the needs of the powerful, we should be prepared to mark them as dangerous and most likely as undemocratic. And we should work to change them.

What are some of today’s ruling ideas? I challenge you to come up with some. But on this Friday morning, here are ten that I see as ruling our lives:

1. That capitalism is the only economic system that works, and that rampant consumption is necessary to keep the economy growing.

2. Related to (1) is the idea that GDP and similar economic measures are the best measure of America’s strength.

3. That “success” in life is measured by money and titles and possessions.

4. Related to (3) is the idea that education that doesn’t end in a lucrative career is largely worthless.

5. That poor people and other disadvantaged groups are the way they are because they refuse to work.

6. That it’s absolutely necessary to spend nearly a trillion dollars a year on national defense, wars, homeland security, intelligence agencies, and nuclear weapons, all of which are justified in the name of “keeping us safe.”

7. That privatization is the way to improve everything, including public services like education, the prison system, and health care.

8. That corporate spending in elections is the equivalent to freedom of speech for individuals and is therefore protected by our Constitution as our nation’s founders intended.

9. That there’s no such thing as class warfare in the United States.

10. Related to (5), that there’s equality of opportunity for everyone in the United States, regardless of race, ethnicity, economic background, and so on. Thus those who “fail” do so because of their own failings, not because the system is rigged against them.

That’s my non-rigorous, somewhat off-the-cuff rendering of rulers’ ideas. Please add your ideas in the comments section. Contrarians of the world unite!

Bread and Circuses in Rome and America

Game On!
Game On!

W.J. Astore

Just posted a new article to Huffington Post.  Here’s the link and the article (pasted below):

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?

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.