Will the U.S. Military Hammer Strike the Citizen Nails?

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Caption at the Guardian: Members of an airborne military unit are deployed on the streets of Washington DC on Thursday. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

W.J. Astore

When the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems begin to look like nails.  This year alone, the U.S. government will spend roughly $740 billion on its military, though the real figure when you add in all costs exceeds a trillion dollars.  With so much “invested,” as the Pentagon likes to say, in that military, there’s a strong tendency to see it as the solution to the most stubborn problems.  All problems become nails either to be whacked down or pulled out and discarded depending upon which end of the military hammer our rulers choose to employ.

Americans are used to “our” military being used to hammer home American exceptionalism in faraway, foreign places.  But what about when that hammer is deployed to Main Street USA to hammer peaceful protesters into line?  Or, alternatively, to pull them out of the streets and into the jails?  That hammer doesn’t seem to be such a solid “investment,” does it?

It appears the Trump administration has now backed away from plans to commit regular federal troops to “dominate” protesters.  Opposition from retired generals and admirals like James Mattis, John Allen, and Mike Mullen may have helped.  But if and when protests become more widespread or embarrassing to Trump personally, don’t be surprised if the “bunker boy” calls again for troops to be committed, the U.S. Constitution be damned.  After all, he’s described peaceful protesters led by clergy in Washington, D.C. as “terrorists,” and we should all know by now what a “war on terror” looks like, led by generals like that same James Mattis.

Remember when a militarized hammer was a symbol of that Evil Empire, the Soviet Union?  Remember when violent suppression of peaceful protests was something “they” did, you know, the bad commies, in places like Hungary and Czechoslovakia?  As Paul Krugman has noted, today much of the GOP would cheer on Trump if he launched a military coup in the name of “law and order.”

Echoing this, one white American from Michigan told a reporter he “applauds” Trump’s crackdown and “fully supports” Trump if he orders federal troops into American streets to suppress protests.  In the same story from the Guardian, reporting from the white suburb of St Clair Shores, many residents “share the president’s world view that the police and national guard are heroically battling violent agitators, not brutally suppressing largely peaceful protesters.”

The story noted that “Several men who were part of a construction crew called the protests ‘stupid’ and a ‘waste of time and energy.’  Some even suggested Floyd was at fault for his death because he allegedly committed a crime, despite general worldwide outrage at the brutal manner of his killing and the criminal charges it has now brought against the officers involved.”

So, you have Americans who support the brutal murder of George Floyd, with the police acting as judge, jury, and executioner, simply because Floyd allegedly passed a counterfeit bill.  They even support a military crackdown, again in the name of “law and order.”

Who’s the evil empire now, America?

The Disastrous Italian War Against Austria-Hungary (1915-18), the Rise of Fascism, and Trump’s Victory in 2016

W.J. Astore

My father’s family was Italian, and his relatives fought, suffered, and died in Italy’s wars before and during World War I.  In his diary, my dad recounted these relatives and their fates:

My mother as far as I can recall had two brothers in the [Italian military] service. One brother had an exploding shell land near him.  He was highly agitated.  A doctor who knew my mother’s family saw that he got a medical discharge.

His brother had a much more dangerous career in the Italian Army.  He was a forward observer for an artillery unit.  He was severely gassed on the Austrian front.  He survived the war but had a premature death from the effects of the gas.

Luigi, Uncle Louie, Astore had quite a career in the Italian Army.  My mother used to call him El Sargento.

Uncle Louie fought three years in the Turkish War [1911-12] and four years in World War 1.  He was a prisoner of war in Germany for a year.  I overheard a conversation and he remarked that things were tough as a prisoner and food was a scarce item.  He never told me about his experiences in World War 1.

So, my grandmother had one brother who had shell-shock (PTSD) and another who died prematurely from poison gas.  My grandfather had a brother (Luigi) who was a POW who nearly starved and who didn’t talk about his war experiences. (I am too young to have clear memories of Luigi, but photos show an unsmiling man, which is not surprising given his war experiences.)

War is all hell, as General William Sherman said, and my father’s family’s experience in Italy illustrates the truth of that.

A childhood friend of mine, who also had Italian parents, sent along a book recommendation to me: The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front, 1915-1919 by Mark Thompson.  My friend wrote a nice little review of it in an email to me, which follows below:

The White War (about Italy’s WWI fight against the Austro-Hungarians) has been fascinating but also depressing.  The insistence of Italian staff officers to send poorly armed and trained men into a battlefield even more deadly than the western front (the Italians had to scale hills and mountains in the face of withering machine gun and artillery fire) boggles the mind.  The Italian high command also had the dubious distinction of ordering more summary executions of the rank and file than the Brits, French, Germans, and Austrians.  Illiterate peasants needlessly sent to their deaths in the hundreds of thousands with Italian military policemen stationed with machine guns to their rear with orders to fire on them in case they did not show the requisite élan.  (My mother’s paternal uncle fell in that war–I wonder what horrors he saw and experienced.)  If it did not already exist, surely the stereotypical Italian cynicism toward governmental authority resulted from the incompetence and brutality of Italian military leadership in WWI.  

With respect to Italian POWs and food scarcity during captivity, my friend noted the following startling fact that he gleaned from reading The White War:

Italian authorities made it a policy to prevent food packages from being sent to Italian POWs in Austrian control as part of their strategy to deter Italian soldiers from surrendering.  Many POWs died as a result.  Unbelievable.

So much for the alleged glories of war.  Italy’s war against Austria-Hungary, fought under bitterly cold conditions in the torturous terrain of the alps, is little known in the United States.  It was a disastrous struggle that consumed nearly a million men for little reason, and the frustrations of that war – the betrayal of common soldiers by societal elites – contributed to estrangement, bitterness, and the embrace of fascism in the 1920s as an alternative to the status quo.

In U.S. politics today, with the backdrop of President Donald Trump’s strong man posturing that recalls the thrusting belligerence of the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, are we witnessing something similar?  Recall that Trump in 2016 garnered  a lot of support in rural areas by taking a position against America’s wasteful wars, even as he beckoned to an unspecified “great” past.  Mussolini, who railed against Italy’s “mutilated victory” in World War I, also won support by calling for societal revival, even as he beckoned to the greatness of Italy’s imperial past.

Like Mussolini, Trump wasn’t (and isn’t) against war.  Rather, both men were against losing wars.  Appealing to tough-guy generals like George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, Trump promised Americans who had suffered they’d “win” again.  Like Mussolini, he promised a brighter future (endless victories!) through higher military spending and aggressive military action.  No more shame of “mutilated” victories — or so Mussolini and Trump promised.

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Did Trump win because he had the nerve to highlight the “mutilated victory” nature of America’s wars?  (Note that the caption here, from the Krinera/Shen study and the Zaid Jilani article, is unclear.  The intent is to show that higher casualty rates favored Trump, and, if rates had been lower, Hillary Clinton may have won instead.)

Trump tapped the anger and resentments of American families who’d borne the sacrifices and suffering of the mutilated victories of Afghanistan and Iraq.  He did this so well that, according to Zaid Jilani at The Intercept, citing a study by Boston University political science professor Douglas Krinera and University of Minnesota Law professor Francis Shen, it may have provided his winning margin of victory in 2016.  As the study notes (also see the illustration above):

“[The] three swing states — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan — could very well have been winners for [Hillary] Clinton [in 2016] if their war casualties were lower.”

Like rural Italian families in the aftermath of World War I, American rural families in the Bush-Obama “war on terror” rejected the status quo posturing of establishment politicians (e.g. Hillary Clinton), turning instead to the anger-driven nationalism (Italy first!  America first!) of self-styled strong men like Mussolini and Trump.

The question is, as America’s fruitless wars persist, and as rural American families continue to bear a disproportionate share of the burden of these wars, will “strong” men like Trump continue to prosper?  Put differently, will the Democratic Party finally have the guts to offer an alternative vision that rejects forever war across the planet?

We know what happened to Mussolini’s quest to make Italy great again — total defeat in World War II.  Will a similar fate befall Trump’s quest?

Time will tell.