This is an Andy Rooney moment for me, but did you ever notice how Americans tend to favor either humongous trophy houses (McMansions), or closet-like tiny houses? Did you ever notice how so many Americans tend to be either very fat or super fit? Crusading evangelicals or militant atheists? Faithful believers in creationism or fervid followers of science? Proud “cave man” carnivores or proselytizing vegans? Coffee fiends or caffeine avoiders? Lushes or teetotalers? Materialists and hoarders or declutterers and minimalists?
The list of opposites, of extremes, goes on. Heck, why not include Obama supporters or Trump followers? Obama is urbane, sophisticated, cerebral, “no drama.” A devoted family man with one very successful marriage. The Donald? Well, let’s just say he’s very different than our sitting president. And I’m not talking skin color.
A good friend of mine once complained about his fellow Americans that he didn’t necessarily mind their extremism. What he did mind was their efforts to convert him to whatever extreme causes they believed in. Rodney King famously asked, Can’t we all just get along? My friend’s cry was more plaintive: Can’t you all just leave me alone?
As Trump crawls closer to power, America risks devolving even more into a society where the byword is “My way or the highway.” Where the national motto is no longer “In God we trust” or the older “E pluribus unum” (out of many, one) but instead “America: love it or leave it.”
I once read a great rejoinder to the “America: love it or leave it” sentiment. I first saw it in a bicycle repair book. The author simply added this coda: “Or change it.”
Extremism in the pursuit of your own selfish definition of “liberty” can indeed be a vice, America. We need to reject a black/white, love/hate, on/off, Manichean view of each other and the world. Moderation as a way of pursuing a more inclusive and compassionate world can indeed be a virtue.
That doesn’t mean one submits supinely to injustice. That doesn’t mean one surrenders meekly to tyrants. What it does mean is a rejection of a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach to life and each other. We have enough polarization already in America, and we certainly have enough death.
Superman used to say he fought for truth, justice, and the American way. There was a sense, a few generations ago, that those words were not laughable. That they meant something. We need to get back to those times.
My parents taught me a lot of common sense sayings. You’ve probably heard this one: mind your own business, or MYOB. Most people have enough problems of their own; it’s not a good idea to compound one’s problems by messing around with other people’s lives.
What’s common sense for individuals is also common sense for nations. Think of the USA. We’ve got plenty of problems: crumbling infrastructure, inefficient and inadequate health care, too many people in too many prisons, social divides based on race and sex and class, drug and alcohol abuse, not enough decent-paying jobs, huge budgetary deficits, the list goes on. Yet instead of looking inwards to address our problems, too often we look outwards and interfere in the lives of others. How can we solve other people’s problems when we can’t solve our own?
Consider our nation’s foreign policy, which is basically driven by our military. We have a global array of military bases, somewhere around 700. We spend roughly $700 billion a year on national “defense” and wars, ensuring that we have “global reach, global power.” To what end? Our nation’s first president, George Washington, famously warned us to avoid foreign entanglements. The nation’s great experiment in republican democracy, Washington knew, could easily be compromised by unwise alliances and costly wars.
This is not an argument for isolationism. The USA, involved as it is in the global economy, could never be isolationist. With all those military bases, and all those U.S. military units deployed around the world, we could never turn completely inwards, pretending as if the rest of the world didn’t exist.
No – not isolationism. Rather a policy of MYOB. Don’t intervene when it’s not our business. And especially don’t intervene using the U.S. military. Why? Because U.S. troops are not charitable or social workers.
The U.S. military is supposed to be for national defense. It’s not an international charity. Even military aid is somewhat questionable. And if you profit from it, as in weapons sales, it smacks of mercenary motives.
As a good friend of mine put it:
I have become rather isolationist myself in my old age. The way I see it, we have the natural resources and (hopefully) the intellectual capital to be largely self-sufficient. We should enter the international marketplace as a self-reliant vendor of goods and services, ready to trade fairly with those who are of a similar mind. The rest can pound sand (no pun intended). Charity begins at home, and we should know by now that our ideology, while “ideal” for America, is not deployable or even beneficial to other countries steeped in ancient cultures of a different nature.
My friend then added the following caveat:
The remaining challenge is how you protect basic human rights, where you can. That is something I feel we have an obligation to attempt to do, but don’t know how to do so without crossing other lines. Perhaps that is how Mother Teresa became St. Teresa of Calcutta.
That’s an excellent question. Again, my response is that U.S. troops are not social workers. Charity and social work is best left to people like Saint (Mother) Teresa. Soldiers may be necessary to protect aid convoys and the like, but military intervention in the name of humanitarianism often ends in disaster, e.g. Somalia. And of course “humanitarian” motives are often used as a cloak to disguise other, far less noble, designs.
Again, the U.S. military is never going to be a do-nothing, isolationist, military. The USA itself will never return to isolationism. What we need to do is to recognize our limitations, realize that other countries and peoples often don’t want our help, or that they’d be better off without our often heavy-handed approach when we do intervene.
We need, in short, to take care of our own business here in the USA, and to let other peoples and nations take care of theirs. Listen to my parents, America: MYOB.
As a teenager, I read Joe Haldeman’s book, “The Forever War.” The title intrigued, as did the interstellar setting. Haldeman’s soldiers are caught up in a conflict whose rules keep changing, in part due to time dilation as predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity. But there’s one thing the soldiers know for certain: no matter what year the calendar says it is, there will always be war.
For the United States today, something similar is true. Our government, our leaders, have essentially declared a forever war. Our military leaders have bought into it as well. The master narrative is one of ceaseless war against a shifting array of enemies. One year it’s the Taliban in Afghanistan. The next it’s Al Qaeda. The next it’s Iraq, followed by Libya and ISIS. Echoing the time dilation effects of Haldeman’s book, Russia and China loom as enemies of the American future as well as of the past. One thing is constant: war.
Our government and leaders can no longer imagine a time of peace. For them the whole world has become a zone of conflict, an irredeemable realm of crusaders jumping from place to place, country to country, even time to time. I say “time to time” because I had a student, an Army infantry veteran, who described Afghan villages to me as “primitive” and “like traveling back to Biblical times.” Indeed, U.S. troops are much like Haldeman’s soldiers, jumping in and out of foreign lands, in both “primitive” and modern times, the one constant again being war.
Why the “forever war”? In part because we as a country have allowed war to become too profitable, even as we’ve assigned it too much meaning in our collective lives. The USA is a country whose past is littered with wars, whose present is defined by war and preparations for it, and whose bellicose future is seemingly already determined by those who see generational conflicts ahead of us. In fact, they’re already planning to profit from them.
War, in short, is a peculiar form of American zen, a defining mindset. When we’re not actually fighting wars, we’re contemplating fighting them. Our form of meditation is ceaseless violent action. Wherever the USA goes, there it is, exporting troops and weapons and, if not war itself, the tools and mindset that are conducive to war.
Andrew Bacevich has written a whip-smart article at TomDispatch.com on this November’s choice for the presidency. Here are a few excerpts:
Trump is a bozo of such monumental proportions as to tax the abilities of our most talented satirists. Were he alive today, Mark Twain at his most scathing would be hard-pressed to do justice to The Donald’s blowhard pomposity.
Similarly, how did the party of Adlai Stevenson, but also of Stevenson’s hero Franklin Roosevelt, select as its candidate someone so widely disliked and mistrusted even by many of her fellow Democrats? True, antipathy directed toward Hillary Clinton draws some of its energy from incorrigible sexists along with the “vast right wing conspiracy” whose members thoroughly loathe both Clintons. Yet the antipathy is not without basis in fact.
Even by Washington standards, Secretary Clinton exudes a striking sense of entitlement combined with a nearly complete absence of accountability. She shrugs off her misguided vote in support of invading Iraq back in 2003, while serving as senator from New York. She neither explains nor apologizes for pressing to depose Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, her most notable “accomplishment” as secretary of state. “We came, we saw, he died,” she bragged back then, somewhat prematurely given that Libya has since fallen into anarchy and become a haven for ISIS.
She clings to the demonstrably false claim that her use of a private server for State Department business compromised no classified information. Now opposed to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TTP) that she once described as the “gold standard in trade agreements,” Clinton rejects charges of political opportunism. That her change of heart occurred when attacking the TPP was helping Bernie Sanders win one Democratic primary after another is merely coincidental. Oh, and the big money accepted from banks and Wall Street as well as the tech sector for minimal work and the bigger money still from leading figures in the Israel lobby? Rest assured that her acceptance of such largesse won’t reduce by one iota her support for “working class families” or her commitment to a just peace settlement in the Middle East.
Let me be clear: none of these offer the slightest reason to vote for Donald Trump. Yet together they make the point that Hillary Clinton is a deeply flawed candidate, notably so in matters related to national security. Clinton is surely correct that allowing Trump to make decisions related to war and peace would be the height of folly. Yet her record in that regard does not exactly inspire confidence.
Not much of a “choice,” right? Donald Trump is a loose cannon, with no apparent rangefinder, whereas Hillary Clinton is a “fire-at-will” cannon, with a known record of pounding a select list of targets. Trump doesn’t know what a nuclear triad is and asks why the U.S. has so many nuclear weapons while not using them (good question, actually, but I don’t think The Donald wants to follow this to the logical conclusion that we should eliminate our nuclear arsenal). Clinton is hopelessly compromised on Israel and so many other issues and is a card-carrying member of American exceptionalism and neo-conservative military adventurism.
Here’s another telling excerpt from Bacevich:
When it comes to fresh thinking, Donald Trump has far more to offer than Clinton — even if his version of “fresh” tends to be synonymous with wacky, off-the-wall, ridiculous, or altogether hair-raising.
The essential point here is that, in the realm of national security, Hillary Clinton is utterly conventional. She subscribes to a worldview (and view of America’s role in the world) that originated during the Cold War, reached its zenith in the 1990s when the United States proclaimed itself the planet’s “sole superpower,” and persists today remarkably unaffected by actual events. On the campaign trail, Clinton attests to her bona fides by routinely reaffirming her belief in American exceptionalism, paying fervent tribute to “the world’s greatest military,” swearing that she’ll be “listening to our generals and admirals,” and vowing to get tough on America’s adversaries. These are, of course, the mandatory rituals of the contemporary Washington stump speech, amplified if anything by the perceived need for the first female candidate for president to emphasize her pugnacity.
A Clinton presidency, therefore, offers the prospect of more of the same — muscle-flexing and armed intervention to demonstrate American global leadership — albeit marketed with a garnish of diversity. Instead of different policies, Clinton will offer an administration that has a different look, touting this as evidence of positive change.
Yet while diversity may be a good thing, we should not confuse it with effectiveness….
So the question needs be asked: Has the quality of national security policy improved compared to the bad old days when men exclusively called the shots? Using as criteria the promotion of stability and the avoidance of armed conflict (along with the successful prosecution of wars deemed unavoidable), the answer would, of course, have to be no. Although Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, and Clinton herself might entertain a different view, actually existing conditions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and other countries across the Greater Middle East and significant parts of Africa tell a different story.
The abysmal record of American statecraft in recent years is not remotely the fault of women; yet neither have women made a perceptibly positive difference. It turns out that identity does not necessarily signify wisdom or assure insight. Allocating positions of influence in the State Department or the Pentagon based on gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation — as Clinton will assuredly do — may well gratify previously disenfranchised groups. Little evidence exists to suggest that doing so will produce more enlightened approaches to statecraft, at least not so long as adherence to the Washington playbook figures as a precondition to employment. (Should Clinton win in November, don’t expect the redoubtable ladies of Code Pink to be tapped for jobs at the Pentagon and State Department.)
In the end, it’s not identity that matters but ideas and their implementation. To contemplate the ideas that might guide a President Trump along with those he will recruit to act on them — Ivanka as national security adviser? — is enough to elicit shudders from any sane person. Yet the prospect of Madam President surrounding herself with an impeccably diverse team of advisers who share her own outmoded views is hardly cause for celebration.
In short, if you want more endless foreign wars and the abridgment of rights here at home in the name of “security,” vote for Hillary. If you want “rogue” actions based on knee-jerk sentiments and biases backed by inexperience and a stunning ignorance of even the most basic world facts, vote for Trump.
Quite a “choice,” right?
Be sure to read the rest of Bacevich’s article here.
The United States is addicted to war — and to war-spending. That’s the message of Bill Hartung’s latest article at TomDispatch.com. Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, writes:
The more that’s spent on “defense”… the less the Pentagon wants us to know about how those mountains of money are actually being used. As the only major federal agency that can’t pass an audit, the Department of Defense (DoD) is the poster child for irresponsible budgeting.
It’s not just that its books don’t add up, however. The DoD is taking active measures to disguise how it is spending the hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars it receives every year — from using the separate “war budget” as a slush fund to pay for pet projects that have nothing to do with fighting wars to keeping the cost of its new nuclear bomber a secret. Add in dozens of other secret projects hidden in the department’s budget and the Pentagon’s poorly documented military aid programs, and it’s clear that the DoD believes it has something to hide.
Having served in the military and DoD for twenty years and having read about it for twenty more, none of this surprises me.
Here’s the thing: In the Pentagon and the wider military, there’s absolutely no incentive to save money. Indeed, the incentive is to spend as much as possible, because that is the best way to increase next year’s budgetary allotment. The military is filled with “Type A” officers whose job it is to spend, spend, spend, while fighting sister services for a bigger slice of the budgetary pie. The more money you get for your program and service, the more likely you’ll get pats on the back, a medal or two, and a glowing promotion recommendation.
Next, Members of Congress. Their incentive is also to spend — to bring home the pork to their districts. And the most lucrative source of pork is “defense” spending, which has the added benefit of being easily spun as “patriotic” and in “support” of the troops.
Finally, the President. His incentive is also to spend. That’s the best way to avoid being charged as being “weak” on defense. It’s also about the only leverage the US has left in foreign policy. Just look at President Obama’s recent trip to Vietnam. The headlines have focused on the US ending its 50-year arms embargo with Vietnam, as if that’s a wonderful thing for Americans and the Vietnamese. As Peter Van Buren noted, normalizing relations with Vietnam by selling them lethal weapons is truly an exercise in cynicism by a declining American empire.
Whether it’s the Pentagon, the Congress, or the president, the whole defense wars and weapons complex is structured to spend the maximum amount of money possible while engorging and enlarging itself. Small wonder it’s never passed an audit!
Making matters worse is how the Pentagon uses various shady practices (e.g. secret budgets) to hamstrung reformers seeking to corral the system’s excesses. After detailing the Byzantine complexity of the budgetary process, Hartung concludes that:
If your head is spinning after this brief tour of the Pentagon’s budget labyrinth, it should be. That’s just what the Pentagon wants its painfully complicated budget practices to do: leave Congress, any administration, and the public too confused and exhausted to actually hold it accountable for how our tax dollars are being spent. So far, they’re getting away with it.
Put succinctly, the US National Security State may be losing its overseas wars, yet losing equates to winning when it comes to increased budgetary authority abetted by a Congress that prefers enablement to oversight. And as any military officer knows, authority without responsibility is a recipe for serious abuse.
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.
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 GermanFreikorps 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.
At the New York Times, Robert Draper had a fascinating article last month on how Republican candidates for president are positioning themselves on foreign policy. Rand Paul excepted, all of the Republican candidates are calling for a more “aggressive” U.S. foreign policy, one that promises more military interventions and higher military spending. The goal is apparently to show more muscle than President Obama, who has been “weak,” according to these same Republicans.
The language here fascinates me. Again and again in Draper’s article, you see references to “a more muscular foreign policy.” Showcasing muscles appears to be a favorite trope of Republican advisers, as is the need to be more “aggressive” overseas (Obama, of course, is viewed as being passive and timid). Republicans according to Draper favor the “aggressive promotion of American values” (whatever those are), an aggression that will somehow avoid recklessness (good luck with that). So, ISIS will be aggressively “destroyed,” even as the Middle East is stabilized by infusing it with “American values” (freedom? democracy? human rights?) promulgated by (as near as I can tell) American military muscle.
To cite just one example, consider this political ad featuring Senator Lindsey Graham, seen in his Air Force reserve uniform, highlighting his promise to “destroy” ISIS.
A muscular and aggressive foreign policy to destroy America’s enemies: If that excites you, vote Republican. But consider the cost of this love affair with muscles and aggression. And then ask yourself: Are they not the real “American values”?
All this talk of bulging military muscles and coldly calculated aggression: the ideal candidate for gung ho Republicans is not the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan. It’s an American Vladimir Putin.
“Whoever controls the media, controls the mind,” Jim Morrison said, and this is certainly true in America. Consider the lead stories over the July 4th weekend. The first was the threat of terror attacks against America. We were told that law enforcement officials were “in no mood for a national party” — that the threat of an ISIS-inspired terror attack was real. That no attack occurred is of no consequence. Fear was stoked, and that’s what matters. Prepare for the next terror reminder on the anniversary of 9/11, if not sooner.
The second story was shark attacks off the Carolina coast. Unusual, yes, but hardly a threat to America or to the vast majority of its people, even those who chose to go swimming in the ocean. “Shark surge!” “Fear at the beach!” “High alert!” These were common expressions in the media.
Of course, Americans were much more likely to be hurt in fireworks accidents than by terrorists or sharks, but the sensational always takes precedence over the mundane in our media. Indeed, if the goal was to safeguard ordinary Americans, we should have been told to stay off the roads this past weekend, but of course that would hurt tourism and the economy, so you weren’t about to hear that advice coming from America’s talking heads.
It seems nearly impossible to remember that one of FDR’s Four Freedoms was the freedom from fear. FDR knew the paralyzing and stultifying effects of fear, the way it erodes individual autonomy, the way it can be made to serve the powerful. Frank Herbert in Dune captured a powerful truth when he wrote that “Fear is the mind-killer.” The movie Blade Runner echoes the sentiment, with the Replicant Roy Batty (played by Rutger Hauer) explaining that to live in fear is to be a slave.
A media that spreads fear facilitates a government of wolves. Or, put slightly differently by the great Edward R. Murrow, “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves.”
There’s a definite method to the media madness, America.
Here are a few excerpts from my latest article at TomDispatch.com. I urge you to read the entire article here. Thank you!
War on drugs. War on poverty. War in Afghanistan. War in Iraq. War on terror. The biggest mistake in American policy, foreign and domestic, is looking at everything as war. When a war mentality takes over, it chooses the weapons and tactics for you. It limits the terms of debate before you even begin. It answers questions before they’re even asked.
When you define something as war, it dictates the use of the military (or militarized police forces, prisons, and other forms of coercion) as the primary instruments of policy. Violence becomes the means of decision, total victory the goal. Anyone who suggests otherwise is labeled a dreamer, an appeaser, or even a traitor.
War, in short, is the great simplifier — and it may even work when you’re fighting existential military threats (as in World War II). But it doesn’t work when you define every problem as an existential one and then make war on complex societal problems (crime, poverty, drugs) or ideas and religious beliefs (radical Islam).
America’s Omnipresent War Ethos
Consider the Afghan War — not the one in the 1980s when Washington funneled money and arms to the fundamentalist Mujahideen to inflict on the Soviet Union a Vietnam-style quagmire, but the more recent phase that began soon after 9/11. Keep in mind that what launched it were those attacks by 19 hijackers (15 of whom were Saudi nationals) representing a modest-sized organization lacking the slightest resemblance to a nation, state, or government. There was as well, of course, the fundamentalist Taliban movement that then controlled much of Afghanistan. It had emerged from the rubble of our previous war there and had provided support and sanctuary, though somewhat grudgingly, to Osama bin Laden.
With images of those collapsing towers in New York burned into America’s collective consciousness, the idea that the U.S. might respond with an international “policing” action aimed at taking criminals off the global streets was instantly banished from discussion. What arose in the minds of the Bush administration’s top officials instead was vengeance via a full-scale, global, and generational “war on terror.” Its thoroughly militarized goal was not just to eliminate al-Qaeda but any terror outfits anywhere on Earth, even as the U.S. embarked on a full-fledged experiment in violent nation building in Afghanistan. More than 13 dismal years later, that Afghan War-cum-experiment is ongoing at staggering expense and with the most disappointing of results.
While the mindset of global war was gaining traction, the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq. The most technologically advanced military on Earth, one that the president termed “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known,” was set loose to bring “democracy” and a Pax Americana to the Middle East. Washington had, of course, been in conflict with Iraq since Operation Desert Storm in 1990-1991, but what began as the equivalent of a military coup (aka a “decapitation” operation) by an outside power, an attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein and eliminate his armed forces and party, soon morphed into a prolonged occupation and another political and social experiment in violent nation-building. As with Afghanistan, the Iraq experiment with war is still ongoing at enormous expense and with even more disastrous results …
It’s the mindset that matters. In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, places that for most Americans exist only within a “war” matrix, the U.S. invades or attacks, gets stuck, throws resources at the problem indiscriminately, and “makes a desert and calls it ‘peace'” (to quote the Roman historian Tacitus). After which our leaders act surprised as hell when the problem only grows.
Sadly, the song remains monotonously the same in America: more wars, made worse by impatience for results driven by each new election cycle. It’s a formula in which the country is eternally fated to lose…
b. traven asked me about “First Causes” when it comes to America’s permanent war mentality. With respect to the Middle East, he mentioned the Saudis and Israelis and the extent to which the USA kowtows to each. Here is my quick response:
I’d say that our war mentality pre-dates our tango with the Saudis and Israelis. We really didn’t come to support them in a big way until the early 1970s, and by that point Korea and Vietnam and the military-industrial complex had already created a permanent war mentality.
First Cause(s): It’s so hard to say. The Cold War and anti-Communist hysteria played a powerful role. So did our culture: the John Wayne mentality. American exceptionalism and our own myths. The misreading of history: We must always resist violently or we’re risking another Munich. Capitalism and the pursuit of profit by any means, to include violence. Violence itself as a means to profit.
Many people associate the Confederate flag (the “stars and bars”) with the South and the U.S. Civil War (Whoops — I mean “The War of Northern Aggression”). For some people, it’s been a more or less vague expression of Southern heritage, or a symbol of rebellion, a sort of redneck “good ol’ boy” badge of pride. Like any symbol, it is capable of holding multiple meanings. To use academic fancy talk, its semiotics is negotiated and interrogated contextually within contingent cultural settings in which radical interpretive flexibility is possible.
Did you follow that last sentence? If you didn’t, pat yourself on the back, because it’s all BS. The “stars and bars” may have been a Confederate battle flag 150 years ago, but after the Civil War it morphed into a symbol of White supremacy, becoming a symbol of race hatred and violent resistance to integration during the Civil Rights movement.
A little honesty: The Confederate flag is hardly restricted to the South, and therefore it’s not primarily about Southern heritage. In rural Central Pennsylvania, where I recently taught for nine years, the Confederate flag was astonishingly common. It was on license plates; it flew every day at a local gas station; I saw neighbors flying it openly on their flag poles. Why, you might ask?
My wife was very good friends with a Black woman in a local town; the (White) neighbor immediately behind her openly flew a Confederate flag from his flag pole. Remember, this was Pennsylvania, Union country, not the heart of the Confederacy. There was no mistaking this man’s message — his unhappiness that a Black family lived near him, and his decision to make them uncomfortable, to make them squirm, by flying “his” flag.
Think I’m reaching here? My wife’s friend has a son who went to the prom. He complimented a (White) classmate on her prom dress, saying it looked “hot” on her. He got a visit from an off-duty State Trooper who explained to him that Black boys don’t talk to White girls like that. Not around here, son. No, this wasn’t 1963. It was 2013. A half-century after the Civil Rights movement.
It’s good to see that the Confederate flag is finally being taken down from State Capitol buildings; that merchandise featuring it is being pulled from store shelves; that politicians are finally speaking out against it, even Republican candidates for president, who equivocated in such a cowardly manner until even they could no longer resist the pull of public outrage stemming from the latest racial hate crime in Charleston.
The question is: What the hell took them (and us) so long?