The Last Honest Speech by a U.S. President

jimmy-carter
Former President Jimmy Carter

W.J. Astore

I was sixteen when President Jimmy Carter gave his so-called Malaise speech in 1979.  Focusing on America’s wasteful energy consumption, Carter vowed to cut America’s dependence on oil imports while pushing alternative energies such as solar.  In crafting his speech, he listened to regular Americans and diagnosed a national peril far worse than America’s wanton consumption of energy.  And for his honesty, Carter got voted out of office in 1980.  The sunny optimism of Ronald Reagan arrived, though the “sunny” part didn’t include the solar panels that Carter had added to the White House.  (Under Reagan, these were quickly removed.)  For Carter’s expertise in science (he was formerly a naval nuclear engineer under Admiral Hyman Rickover) came Reagan’s fossil-fuel-friendly policies and Nancy Reagan’s penchant for astrology.  It was morning again in America in the sense that profit once again took priority over policy and people – and fantasy took precedence over reality.

Let’s take a fresh look at Carter’s speech, one in which he never used the word “malaise.”  Carter told Americans in 1979 that: “We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I’ve warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.”

The second, much to be preferred, path was: “the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our Nation and ourselves.”

Does anyone have any doubt about which path America chose under Reagan and his successors?

The “certain route to failure.”  A route where tens of millions of Americans lose their health care during a pandemic; a route where the government bails out the richest corporations first and the poorest Americans last, if at all; a route where division and fragmentation are the order of the day, embraced by a president who revels in chaos and his own self-interest.  And a route where that same man is likely to be reelected as president in November, despite his colossal mismanagement of a health crisis that he can’t even bring himself to understand, let alone attempt to control.

Jimmy Carter caught the looming dysfunction back in 1979: “What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well-financed and powerful special interests.”

In the four decades since then, Congress has been totally consumed by these “well-financed and powerful special interests,” so much so that, to repeat myself, they get bailed out first during a pandemic, tapping into a slush fund that may rise to $4 trillion, while most Americans are lucky to see a one-time payment of $1200.

Meanwhile, what is the message to regular Americans from President Trump and his handlers?  You must get back to work.  Never mind a deadly pandemic.  We must get the economy humming again.  We must make and consume, just as we always have.  Yet Carter had a warning here as well:

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

Small wonder that he lost, right?  What madness was Carter talking about in 1979?  Material goods aren’t the source of happiness?

Carter made matters worse by calling for energy conservation and gasoline rationing.  He even asked Americans to lower their thermostats in the winter and to reduce their speed on the highway.  That commie!

In 1980, Americans rejected Carter’s call for sacrifice, preferring the fantasy sold by Reagan.  Forget conservation and gas rationing.  I can’t drive fifty-five!  Don’t you know the best way to help the poor is by empowering the rich?  It’s called trickle-down economics (don’t listen to that guy who called it “voodoo economics”).  Might makes right and the Vietnam War was a “noble cause.”

In 1980, it was like the country took a collective journey to “Fantasy Island,” maybe on the “Love Boat,” a TV show where Ronald Reagan could have had a star turn as an ageing, washed up, actor.  Reagan gained the Oval Office instead, and the former pitchman for GE got to work selling a corporate-dominated America as the natural end state of Democracy.  Yay capitalism!

Is it any surprise that real wages for workers in America have basically been flat since the time of Carter?  Reagan instituted Robin Hood in reverse, facilitating an economy where the rich got far richer, mainly by trampling on the backs of the middle class and poor.

So, we collectively bought a cancerous fantasy in 1980, one which has now metastasized with a malignant and sociopathic exploiter, Donald Trump, at the helm.

One thing is certain: you won’t get any honest speeches from Trump.  Nor from his predecessors back to the time of Reagan, as they all did Wall Street’s bidding, Democrats and Republicans alike.  Nor can you expect any future honesty from the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden.

For the last honest speech by an American president, you must go back to Jimmy Carter in 1979.  The malaise came, not from his speech, but from our failure to listen to him.

The U.S. Military, the Founders, and Original Intent

war weary
It’s too easy to speak of war in the abstract … the Founders knew better

W.J. Astore

In America, you sometimes hear talk of “original intent” (or strict constructionism) from conservatives, usually applied to the courts and especially to the Supreme Court.  The idea is to neuter “activist” judges by pressuring them to stick to the letter of the U.S. Constitution as written in the 1780s (as if that document has never required amendment), thereby upholding the original intent of the Founders (as if those men were gods who never got anything wrong).

Why is it, though, that original intent is never applied to America’s vast military establishment?  Because when you read the Founders, you learn they were strongly against large standing armies and vehemently criticized the anti-democratic nature and sheer wastefulness of wars.

James Madison was especially eloquent speaking against war.  In 1793, he wrote that: “In no part of the constitution is more wisdom found than in the clause which confines the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department. War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement.”

Madison knew presidents could readily enlarge their powers by waging constant wars, just as Britain’s kings had.  So he and his fellow Founders did their best to subjugate the army to Congress through various laws, such as funding it for only two years while also having each member of the House stand for reelection every two years.  An unpopular and wasteful war, Madison figured, wouldn’t be funded after two years, forcing a president to put an end to it.  Voters, meanwhile, would act to get rid of Members of Congress who foolishly or selfishly supported such a war.

Madison, of course, lived in a time when America’s vast and powerful military-industrial complex didn’t exist.  That Complex is now a fourth branch of government that the Founders didn’t anticipate.  But what if the Complex either didn’t exist or could be reined in, and what if “original intent” could be applied to America’s Department of Defense?  We’d see a few things change:

1. No large standing army, thereby reducing American foolhardiness in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
2. Only defensive wars.  An end to the Iraq and Afghan wars would be a start.
3. Gun ownership would be contingent on the willingness and ability to serve in the militia (National Guard or Reserves).
4. No wars, no “overseas contingency operations,” without a formal Congressional declaration.
5. Firm Congressional oversight of all military operations.  An end to secrecy — the military must be accountable to the people.

The president, of course, serves as commander-in-chief.  But here the intent of the Founders was to firmly subordinate the military to civilian control.  It was not to empower the president as a quasi-generalissimo.  So the days of presidents making near-unilateral decisions to commit American troops abroad must end, as it is totally contrary to the original intent of the U.S. Constitution.

Of course, I’m not arguing that we slavishly follow the Founders — in that case, we’d still have slavery, and in more ways than one.  The point is that if we’re going to look to the Founders and celebrate their wisdom, let’s not do that merely for narrow partisan political gain.  Let’s do it in a way that truly nourishes and enlivens democracy.  Ending our permanent state of debilitating and destructive militarism and warfare would be a fine start.  Madison, I think, would approve.

Note: to read more on this subject, see Greg Foster’s “Why the Founding Fathers Would Object to Today’s Military” (2013) at https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2013/07/why-founding-fathers-would-object-todays-military/66668.  As Foster notes, the Founders were not anti-military; they were anti-militarism.  And, having experienced the pains of war, they took pains to prevent future ones.  Let’s emulate them here.

Trillions for Warplanes: The Case of the F-35

f-35b-lightning-ii_010
F-35 Costs: Up, Up, and Away!

W.J. Astore

My latest article for TomDispatch.com focuses on the F-35 stealth fighter, which is estimated to cost $1.5 trillion over the life of the program.  I hope you can read all of the article here; what follows is an extended excerpt on the history of the program.  Did you ever notice how Congress never asks where the money is coming from for these incredibly expensive weapons?  But ask for money for education, environmental protection, infrastructure, and especially for poor people and Congress starts screaming about the deficit, which is booming under Trump.  But there’s always money for weapons!  We need to remember that “government” money is our money, and we need to start spending it on priorities that matter to us, not to defense contractors and generals.

A Brief History of the F-35 Program

I first heard of what would become the F-35 in 1995. I was then a captain in the Air Force, working on flight-planning software. I was told that a new Joint Strike Fighter, or JSF, was being developed.  The “joint” meant that the Air Force, Navy, and Marines would all use it. Its big selling point at the time was the striking level of anticipated savings expected due to the commonality of the design, of spare parts, and of everything else. (Those in the know then, however, remembered the Pentagon’s previous shot at “jointness,” the TFX program in the 1960s; the resulting plane, the F-111, would be rejected by the Navy and unloved by the Air Force.)

The new JSF was advertised as offering the highest-tech possible at the lowest price imaginable, a fighter that would replace legacy aircraft like the Air Force’s F-16s and A-10s and the Navy’s F-18s. Winning the competition to develop the plane was weapons giant Lockheed Martin and a prototype F-35 Lightning II first took to the skies in 2006, by which time I was already retired from the Air Force. In the 13 years since then, the F-35 has gone through a mind-boggling series of major program delays and setbacks, burning money all the way.

In 2014, the plane’s woeful record finally caught the eye of CBS’s 60 Minutes, which documented how the program was seven years behind schedule and already $163 billion over budget. The Pentagon, however, simply plunged ahead. Its current plan: to buy more than 2,600 F-35s by 2037, with the assumption that their service lives will possibly extend to 2070. In Pentagon terms, think of it as a multi-generational warplane for America’s multi-generational wars.

Five years after that 60 Minutes exposé and 13 years after its first flight, the F-35 unsurprisingly remains mired in controversyHarper’s Andrew Cockburn recently used it to illustrate what he termed “the Pentagon Syndrome,” the practice of expending enormous sums on weapons of marginal utility.  The F-35, he noted, “first saw combat [in 2018], seventeen years after the program began. The Marines sent just six of them on their first deployment to the Middle East, and over several months only managed to fly, on average, one combat sortie per plane every three days. According to the Pentagon’s former chief testing official, had there been opposition, these ‘fighters’ could not have survived without protection from other planes.” 

So far, in other words, the F-35 has had an abysmally low rate of availability. Technically speaking, it remains in “initial operational testing and evaluation,” during which, as defense journalist Dan Grazier has noted, it achieved a “fully mission capable rate” of just 11% in its combat testing phase. (The desired goal before going into full production is 80%, which is, in a sense, all you need to know about the “success” of that aircraft so many years later.) Compounding those dreadful percentages is another grim reality: the F-35’s design isn’t stable and its maintenance software has been a buggy nightmare, meaning the testers are, in a sense, trying to evaluate a moving and messy target.

These and similar problems led President Trump and former acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to push possible alternatives to the F-35 as a way of pressuring Lockheed Martin to improve its performance.  In December 2016, before he even entered the Oval Office, for example, Trump tweeted about building F-18 Super Hornets in place of the F-35. Later, Shanahan advocated for an updated version of the venerable F-15 Eagle, made by Boeing, a company for which he had only recently been a senior executive. But the president’s tweets have moved on, as has Shanahan, and Lockheed Martin continues to hold all the cards. For the Pentagon, it’s still the F-35 or bust.

Unsurprisingly, the president has changed his tune, enthusing that the F-35 is invisible (“You literally can’t see it”) rather than merely difficult to detect on radar. (He has also referred to Marillyn Hewson, the CEO of Lockheed Martin, as Marillyn Lockheed.)  The main selling point of the F-35 is indeed its stealth technology, marking it as a “fifth generation” fighter when compared to the older F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, and A-10s, which are decidedly unstealthy and radar detectable. Primarily because of such technology, the Pentagon argues that the F-35 will prove far more “survivable” than previous warplanes in any future conflict with Russia, China, or some other country equipped with sophisticated radars and surface-to-air missiles.

Yet such stealthiness comes at a real cost and not just in monetary terms. To maintain its stealthy profile, the F-35 must carry its weaponry internally, limiting its load and destructive power compared to “fourth generation” planes like the A-10 and F-15. It must also rely on an internal fuel system, which will limit its range in battle, while its agility in air-to-air combat seems poor compared to older fighters like the F-16. (The Pentagon counters, unconvincingly, that the F-35 wasn’t designed for such dogfighting.)

As a former Air Force project engineer and historian of technology and warfare, here’s my take on the F-35 program today: in trying to build an aircraft to meet the diverse requirements of three services, Lockheed Martin has produced a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none albatross. Each military service piled requirements onto the F-35, as ever more esoteric features were added, including that stealth capability; special software featuring eight million lines of code; unique (and wildly expensive) helmets for its pilots; and vertical landing/short takeoff capacity for the Marines, which led to an airframe design that made it ever less maneuverable for the Air Force and Navy. The result: perhaps the classic example of a plane that is far less than the sum of its staggeringly expensive parts.

To get more specific, consider the mission of close air support, or CAS, which means supporting troops in or near combat. The best and most survivable plane for such a role remains the one specifically designed for it: the unglamorous A-10 Warthog, which ground troops love but Air Force officialdom hates (because it was designed in response to Army, not Air Force, needs). By comparison, the F-35, which is supposed to fill the A-10’s role, simply isn’t designed for such a mission.  It’s too fast, meaning its loiter time over targets is severely limited; its weapons load is inadequate; it has only one engine, making it more vulnerable to ground fire; and its (malfunctioning) gun lacks punch. (It also costs twice as much to fly.) Despite all this, the Air Force continues to advocate for the F-35 in a CAS role, even as it grudgingly re-wings A-10s to extend their lives.

And keep in mind as well that, if you want an attack platform that can loiter for hours, while removing all risk to pilots, why not just use already existing drones like the military’s Reapers?  Who even needs an expensive F-35 stealth fighter?  To these and similar criticisms the Pentagon responds that it’s fifth generation! It’s new! It’s stealthy! It’s a game-changer! It scares the Russians and Chinese! And if those answers don’t work, there’s always that old standby: tell me why you hate our troops!

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin’s profits are soaring as that company and the Pentagon sell the F-35 to allies around the world. Despite its delays, cost overruns, and performance issues, it’s still being promoted as America’s latest and greatest.  Foreign military sales have the added benefit of driving down per-unit costs for the Pentagon, even as politicians tout the F-35 as a huge job creator. In short, with no alternative in sight, Lockheed Martin remains top gun in the Pentagon’s cockpit (Eat your heart out, Tom Cruise!), with virtually guaranteed profits for the next half-century.

Read the rest of the article here.

When Will We Ever Learn?

Ronald Enzweiler (Guest Author)

What America’s National Security State Got Wrong in Its Wars of Choice and How to Deconstruct the War State

I’m a Washington outsider/non-careerist who worked seven years as a civilian advisor in our country’s Wars of Choice in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Earlier in my life, I served in and worked for the military-industrial complex.  I have lived, worked and traveled throughout Europe and the Greater Middle East.  Given this background, I’ve written a book (Will We Ever Learn?) recounting from personal knowledge how our nation’s interventionist foreign policy and military adventurism has transformed the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about in 1961 into today’s unimaginable $1.25 trillion/year national security establishment.  This enterprise operates as a de facto shadow government apart from our representative democracy.  It perpetuates a bipartisan war culture driven by defense industry lobbyists and special interests.  Our burgeoning multi-agency “War State” is the primary reason for Congress’ $1-trillion-plus/year budget deficits and our country’s $22 trillion in national debt.

As I document in my book, $7.5 trillion of the $12 trillion increase in our national debt since 9/11 is attributable to increases in defense spending mainly related to the War on Terror.  I can attest that the trillions spent on these idiotic wars was a waste of taxpayers’ money.  Much worse, they created over 6,000 Gold Star parents and tens of thousands of maimed and PTSD-stricken brave patriots.  Yet, overspending on our military goes on – even as War on Terror proponents admit Americans are less safe today.  Most political leaders responsible for our recent wars and their funding – and the pundits who advocated for them – are still around as esteemed figures in Washington.   No four-star generals – company men one and all — were held accountable for the DoD’s egregious mistakes in warfighting strategy and tactics that I document in my book.

The swamp creatures who rule over Washington’s war culture know they must maintain our War State as an expanding $1.25 trillion/year enterprise (including what I estimate to be $250 billion/year for nuclear-war deterrence) to stay in power – regardless of how much national debt they run up and how many Gold Star parents, maimed soldiers, and PTSD cases result from their military adventurism.  Congressional leadership supports the War State because both parties receive massive campaign funding to maintain the status quo from corporate lobbyists and big donors. This insiders’ money game is not the America my Uncle Norb – who I never knew because he was killed storming the beach at Eniwetok Atoll as a 19-year-old Marine in 1944 – died fighting to preserve as member of our nation’s greatest generation.

In my book (and this essay), I identify specific changes in  foreign and military policy and $500 billion/year in defense spending cuts which, if made, would make America and the world safer.  These sensible and practical actions recognize the instability and trepidation that Washington’s bullying and war culture are causing around the world.

My remedies include restricting the development and proliferation of conventional weapons and eliminating all nuclear weapons from the world under a United Nations Treaty ratified in 2017 by 123 countries.  This U.N. initiative followed a 2007 Wall Street Journal commentary titled “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” by Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn — hardly naïve isolationists.  President Obama also persuasively advocated for a no-nuke world in a speech he gave in Prague in 2009.  Under my plan to scale-back U.S. militarism, our country would still spend twice as much on national security as our two presumed military adversaries combined: Russia with its crumbling economy and China with its growing dissident problems.  If our national security state officials can’t keep America safe with a 2:1 spending advantage over these two troubled countries, they all should be fired.

Senator Bernie Sanders is the only 2020 presidential candidate who has pledged to take on the military-industry complex and cut defense spending.  But in a Vox interview, Sanders admitted that, given the power the national security state’s shadow government exerts over Congress, defense spending cuts are a nonstarter the way Congress now works — no matter who is president.

What’s a solution to this predicament that engenders our idiotic wars and is driving our country off a fiscal cliff?  Simple: Empower — and require – all members of Congress, as our directly elected representatives, to make up-or-down floor votes on specific spending “tradeoffs” as a follow-on step to the current Congressional appropriations process.  For example, the Democratic caucus in the House could require a tradeoff vote on cancelling funding in the DoD’s approved appropriations bill for the $1.5-trillion life-time-costs F-35 fighter program (the late Senator John McCain – hardly an anti-military pacifist — called the F-35 program “a scandal and a tragedy” at a 2016 Senate hearing ); or spending the same amount over the same timeframe for better health care, free college tuition, student debt forgiveness, and similar programs.

If a specific tradeoff challenge vote passes both Houses of Congress, it would go the President to accept or reject.  A challenge could fail.  But each member of Congress who voted “no” in this example would have to explain at reelection time why he or she thinks our military needs over 2,000 F-35s when Russia has zero Su-57s in service; and why he or she believes the money spent on unneeded F-35’s could not be better used to reduce the federal budget deficit (also an option in my plan) — or make college affordable for all our citizens as the tradeoff vote in this example.

These changes can all happen if voters bring up these reform initiatives at candidate forums and obtain pledges from candidates for federal office to commit to fixing Congress so it serves the interests of individual citizens — not corporate lobbyists and special interests.  Getting these changes adopted may yet prevent our democracy from going down the low road to perdition.

Plenty of Money for Warplanes

download
What golden idols are we making and worshiping today?

W.J. Astore

Even as Congress fights over a few billion dollars for the 9/11 first responders, there’s no shortage of money for warplanes.  This week the Pentagon announced the largest military procurement deal in history: $34 billion for 478 F-35 warplanes.  This decision comes despite the less-than-stellar performance of the F-35.

How can we forget the suffering of 9/11 first responders yet continue to buy overpriced jets at mind-boggling prices?  Sometimes I think we worship weapons as a golden idol.  People get so excited about them – almost as if they “own” their own personal F-35.  What can these warplanes do for us except blow things up?  Who’s going to attack the U.S. with a vast air fleet such that we need all these planes for “defense”?

The other day, I was reading old reporting from World War II (in the Library of America series).  There was an article on war rationing and how Americans were fighting for more gasoline for their personal cars.  And a war ration board member referenced the amount of gas a bomber needed just to warm up its engines as the reason why ordinary Americans had to ration gas.

Imagine if Americans today had to ration gas so that our F-35s and stealth bombers could fly.  Imagine if you couldn’t go on your summer vacation because you couldn’t get the gas due to the war on terror or the gas-guzzling appetites of B-52s and Navy jets operating near Iran.

Americans might actually pay attention to our foreign wars!  They might begin to question why they couldn’t get gas for their cars, trucks, boats, and campers because of Iran deployments or Afghan operations or what-have-you.

But unlike in World War II, today we are asked to make no sacrifices.  None.  Only our tax dollars — and our collective futures.

After the Mueller Report, Should Trump Be Impeached?

1711
French Ambassador Araud: Like Louis XIV, Trump believes he is the state.

W.J. Astore

The redacted Mueller Report is out, and there’s plenty of evidence that President Trump attempted to obstruct the investigation, which he saw as a partisan “witch hunt.” Indeed, Trump was saved by his aides, who refused to follow his orders to impede the investigation and to fire Robert Mueller.  Predictably, Republicans still support Trump, whereas prominent Democrats like Elizabeth Warren are calling for impeachment.

Should Trump be impeached?  No, I don’t think so.

I’m no fan of Trump.  I think he disqualified himself as a candidate in 2016 when he said he’d issue illegal orders to the U.S. military, which his generals would be obliged to follow.  Trump is not a public servant; in fact, he’s not much of a leader, period.  His basic instinct is to divide and conquer.  He looks for toadies and yes-men.  He cares little for anyone but himself and his immediate family.  He’s a master of regressive politics, a fomenter of discord.  His idea of justice is everything for Trump.

In sum, I don’t reject impeachment because I favor Trump.  I reject impeachment since the process will consume Congress and the country.

We have much higher priorities to address in America.  People are hurting.  Congress should focus (for once!) on helping ordinary people, not chasing Trump down various rabbit holes.

The outgoing French ambassador to the U.S. put it well in a recent interview.  Comparing Trump to Louis XIV, Ambassador Araud said “You have an old king, a bit whimsical, unpredictable, uninformed, but he wants to be the one deciding.”  Part of his act is to humiliate his subordinates as a way of showing his “mastery” of them.  He saves his admiration for other “strong men” like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un.  That’s who Trump is.

Trump’s an awful president.  But impeachment won’t kill him — it will likely make him stronger.  Put differently, Trump has already been convicted in the court of public opinion.  Even some of his followers recognize that Trump’s a con man who can’t be trusted.  The point is not to remove him via impeachment, but to defeat him in 2020 by offering a progressive vision rather than a regressive one.

Focus on helping the American people, Congress.  Leave the “old king” to his ignorance and whimsies.

Trump, the Wall, and Ruling by Emergency Decree

Paul v. Hindenburg
As President of Weimar, Paul von Hindenburg ruled by emergency decree, becoming a proto-dictator.  Is America heading down that road?

W.J. Astore

In the Weimar Republic of Germany during the early 1930s, the President of that time, Paul von Hindenburg, ruled increasingly by emergency decree due to a hopelessly divided and ineffectual Reichstag (parliament or congress).  In 1932, for example, Hindenburg issued 66 emergency decrees while the Reichstag itself succeeded in passing only five laws.  Even before Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, Hindenburg had emerged, in a supposedly democratic Germany, as a fuhrer or dictator, issuing decrees in the name of getting things done.  A time-limited “emergency” executive power, in sum, became Weimar’s new normal, setting the stage for a much more malignant autocracy in the future.

As Donald Trump contemplates declaring a national emergency to enlarge America’s preexisting wall along the border with Mexico, Americans would do well to remember the Weimar example.  Ruling by emergency decree is the path to authoritarianism, and Congress, no matter how divided or ineffectual it is, should act to stop executive overreach before it finds itself neutered and irrelevant.

Of course, the U.S. Congress has already largely refused to exercise its “power of the purse” over the military as well as its power to declare (and control) America’s wars.  Whether America’s elected representatives have the collective guts to stop Trump’s potential usurpation of power remains to be seen.

One thing is certain.  Americans are growing accustomed to a divided, dysfunctional, even a shutdown, government.  And we’re growing accustomed to presidents acting like dictators, especially under circumstances couched as “wars” or other national emergencies (as determined by that same executive branch).  No matter your political party or allegiance (or lack thereof), this is not how democracy works — it’s how democracy dies.

A Few Observations on War, Sports, Fortresses, America, and Life

stealthbomberhead-800x533
America the beautiful?  Yes, that’s a stealth bomber designed for nuclear attack cruising over a football stadium, because America!

W.J. Astore

It’s a new year!  And as we adjust to 2019, I thought I’d share a few random observations (hopefully of some import).

“Retirement”: Many Americans fear the concept of retirement.  Part of the challenge is coming to grips with the word.  In America, your identity often hinges on your title, your job, and your paycheck.  Since retiring from teaching (after retiring from the military), I’m still mentally adjusting to not having a fixed schedule, to not having expectations on the job that have to be met. I’ve never been an especially driven person but I’ve always sought to do well. Now I have to do well on terms defined by me. It’s a mental adjustment.

One thing is certain: society is always trying to pigeonhole us.  When I tell people I’m “retired,” the immediate response is “You’re too young” or “But what do you do?” said in an incredulous voice.  To avoid this problem, sometimes I tell people I’m a writer or a historian, both true, though I currently have no salaried position as such.  To state the obvious, American culture is job-centered. Look at our health care: lose your job, lose your health insurance. So much of our identity, as well as our ability to navigate American society, is based on our jobs.

People find meaning in work.  But inspiration can be found elsewhere.  Find something of value to you that’s inspiring and I don’t think you’ll ever be “retired.”

“A man’s home is his castle”: Is it good that men are encouraged to think of their homes as their castles?  For what are castles but fortresses? And fortresses need defending, with guns and security alarms and fences and all the rest.  And if a man is Lord of his Castle, then everyone else is his subject, including his wife and children. Perhaps especially his wife and children.  We need to think of home as home, not as a castle, not as a fortress in which a man fortifies and actuates his own fears and aggression.  (This observation was inspired by an article on male violence in the home.)

On Mourning America’s War Dead: A subject worthy of discussion is how we mourn our troops. When flag-draped caskets return to American soil, our troops are honored. But they are mourned mainly within family settings, or among neighbors in close-knit communities. Rarely are they mourned within wider communal settings. And I sense that some families are torn: there is little serenity for them, not only because they lost a loved one, but because there is a sense, a suspicion, that loved ones died for lesser causes, causes unrelated to ideals held sacred.

Of course, a soldier never dies in vain when he dies for his fellow troops. But that can be said of all soldiers on all sides in all wars. In a republic like the USA, or a polis as in ancient Greece, soldiers are supposed to die for something greater than the unit. That larger purpose is a communal ideal. Call it truth, justice, and the American way. Or call it something else, a sense of rightness if not righteousness.

But where is the rightness in America’s wars today?

On America’s Standing Military and Congressional Authority:  The nation’s founders knew there’d be national emergencies that would require a larger “standing” military (i.e., not just state militias of “minutemen”), but they wanted to prevent a state of permanent war, which they attempted to do with the two-year appropriation clause. They were well familiar with history and all those hundred years’, thirty years’, and seven years’, wars.  By giving the people (Congress) the power of the purse, they hoped to prevent those long wars by cutting off open-ended funding.

Of course, today that doesn’t apply.  The AUMF (authorization for the use of military force) that dates from 2001 is used to justify a state of perpetual war and the funding of the same.  Congress has abnegated its responsibility to check overweening Executive power for war-making, but actually it’s worse than that: Congress has joined the Executive branch in pursuing perpetual war. We no longer even bother with formal Congressional declarations; permanent war is considered to be the new normal in America: business as usual.

Not only have we created a permanent standing military — we devote the lion’s share of federal resources to it and brag about how great it is.  That reality is antithetical to our national ideals as imagined and articulated by this nation’s founders.

Sports, Movies, and the Military in America:  There’s a tendency for people to dismiss sports as “just sports” or movies as “just movies.” Yet astute people recognize the power of both. The classic case is Nazi Germany and the 1936 Olympics, and of course Leni Riefenstahl and spectacles like “The Triumph of the Will.” These, of course, were blatant, in-your-face, rallies. Today, U.S. sports/military celebrations may not be as blatant, but sports connects powerfully to feel-good patriotism as fanatical boosterism, which is precisely why the military is so eager to appropriate sports imagery (and to infiltrate sporting events). The corporate sponsors see it as a win-win: a win for profits, and a win for their image as “patriots.”

Hollywood is the dream factory. Sports too has a strong fantasy element. Speaking as an American male, who hasn’t dreamed of hitting the big home run like Big Papi or pitching a no-hitter like Matt Scherzer?

Man does not live by bread alone; to a certain extent, we live by dreams. Through our aspirations. And our dreams and aspirations are being channeled along certain lines: along more military lines, both at and by sporting events as well as at the movie theater.

It’s not just crass commercialism. It’s about shaping dreams, defining what’s appropriate (and what isn’t).

Thank you for indulging me as I cram into this article a few observations I’ve been kicking around.  I’d also like as ever to thank all my readers and especially my faithful commenters and correspondents.  Fire away in the comments section, readers!

Putting Labor back in Labor Day Weekend

WPR: Marches & Pickets

W.J. Astore

Labor Day weekend is a reminder there’s no labor party in U.S. politics.  Instead, we have two pro-business parties: the Republicans and the Republicans-lite, otherwise known as the Democrats.  Both are coerced if not controlled by corporations through campaign finance “contributions” (bribes) and lobbyists (plus the promise of high-paying jobs should your local member of Congress lose an election or wish to transition to a much higher paying job as a lobbyist/influence peddler).  With money now defined as speech, thanks to the Supreme Court, there’s a lot of “speech” happening in Congress that has nothing to do with the concerns of workers.

Nevertheless, a myth exists within the mainstream media that “socialist” progressive politicians are coming this fall to take your money and to give it to the undeserving poor (and especially to “illegal” immigrants, who aren’t even citizens!).  First of all, the so-called Democratic Socialists are not advocating nationalization of industry; they’re basically New Deal Democrats in the tradition of FDR.  Just like Republicans, they believe in capitalism and the “free” market; they just want to sand down some of the rougher edges of exploitation.  Consider, for example, Bernie Sanders’s efforts to get a living wage for Disney employees.  Disney has finally promised to pay workers $15.00 an hour (phased in over the next few years), even as the corporation makes record profits and the CEO stands to earn hundreds of millions.  Second, you’ll notice the bulk of the Trumpian tax breaks aren’t going to the workers and middle class: it’s the richest Americans (and corporations) that benefit the most from these cuts.  Some of that money is supposed to “trickle down” to workers, but most of it doesn’t.  (Funding stock buy-backs, not pay raises, is especially popular among corporations.)

My father knew the score.  As a factory worker, he lived the reality of labor exploitation, and fought his own humble battle for decent wages.  I’ve shared this lesson before, but it bears repeating, especially since it’s Labor Day weekend.

My Dad’s Story

(My dad was attempting to get a dime pay raise at the local factory.  This was about the year 1950.)

It seems that Mike Calabrese on his own asked Harry Callahan [one of the owners] for a pay raise and he was refused. Mike decided to organize the men members and go down in a group. In our group he got ten men to approach Harry C. for a raise. But when it was time to “bell the cat” only three fellows went to see Harry. Well Mike said he couldn’t join the group because he had already tried to get a raise. I knew I was being used but I was entitled to a raise. Well Harry said to me, “What can I do for you men?” So I said to Harry: 1) Living costs were going up; 2) We deserved a raise. So Harry said, “How much?” and I said ten cents an hour would be a fair raise. So he said I’ll give you a nickel an hour raise and later you’ll get the other nickel. We agreed. So, I asked Harry will everyone get a raise and he replied, “Only the ones that I think deserve it.”

Well a month later I was drinking water at the bubbler and Harry saw me and said what a hard job they had to get the money to pay our raises. Well, Willie, Harry Callahan and his brother Sam and their two other Italian brother partners all died millionaires. No other truer saying than, “That the rich have no sympathy or use for the poor.”

My dad was no political radical.  He later became a firefighter and served for more than 30 years before retiring.  It’s precisely because my dad wasn’t a political firebrand that his words resonate so powerfully: “That the rich have no sympathy or use for the poor.”

It’s a good lesson to keep in mind.  Isn’t it high time we put Labor back in Labor Day weekend?

National Defense versus Global (In)Security

armada
Carrier strike forces, bombers, fighters: As American as apple pie

W.J. Astore

Our government likes to talk about global security, which in their minds is basically synonymous with homeland security.  They argue that the best defense is a good offense, that “leaning forward in the foxhole,” or always being ready to attack, is the best way to keep Americans safe.  Hence the 800 U.S. military bases in foreign countries, the deployment of special operations units to 130+ countries, and the never-ending “war on terror.”

Consider this snippet from today’s FP: Foreign Policy report:

If Congress votes through the massive tax cuts currently on the House floor, it would likely mean future cuts to Pentagon budgets “for training, maintenance, force structure, flight missions, procurement and other key programs.”

That’s according to former defense secretaries Leon E. Panetta, Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter, who sent a letter to congressional leadership Wednesday opposing the plan. “The result is the growing danger of a ‘hollowed out’ military force that lacks the ability to sustain the intensive deployment requirements of our global defense mission,” the secretaries wrote.

“Our global defense mission”: this vision that the U.S., in order to be secure, must dominate the world ensures profligate “defense” spending, to the tune of nearly $700 billion for 2018.  Indeed, the Congress and the President are currently competing to see which branch of government can throw more money at the Pentagon, all in the name of “security,” naturally.

Here’s a quick summary of the new “defense” bill and what it authorizes (from the Washington Post):

The bill as it stands increases financial support for missile defense, larger troop salaries and modernizing, expanding and improving the military’s fleet of ships and warplanes. The legislation dedicates billions more than Trump’s request for key pieces of military equipment, such as Joint Strike Fighters — there are 20 more in the bill than in the president’s request — and increasing the size of the armed forces. The bill also outlines an increase of almost 20,000 service members — nearly twice Trump’s request.

In the House of Representatives, the bill passed by a vote of 356-70.  At least Congress can agree on something — more and more money for the Pentagon.  (The $700 billion price tag includes $65.7 billion “for combat operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, various places in Africa, and elsewhere,” notes FP: Foreign Policy.)

Besides all this wasteful spending (the Pentagon has yet to pass an audit!), the vision itself is deeply flawed.  If you want to defend America, defend it.  Strengthen the National Guard.  Increase security at the border (including cyber security).  Spend money on the Coast Guard.  And, more than anything, start closing military bases overseas.  End U.S. participation in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and throughout the greater Middle East and Africa.  Bring ground troops home.  And end air and drone attacks (this would also end the Air Force’s “crisis” of being short nearly 2000 pilots).

This is not a plea for isolationism.  It’s a quest for sanity.  America is not made safer by spreading military forces around the globe while bombing every “terrorist” in sight.  Quite the reverse.

Until we change our vision of what national defense really means–and what it requires–America will be less safe, less secure, and less democratic.