Walls and weapons and wars have come to define the USA in the 21st century. The most infamous wall is Donald Trump’s proposed extension of the border wall with Mexico. Weapons are everywhere, domestically with guns and mass shootings even as weapons sales overseas drive U.S. foreign policy. Wars are simply endless in places that most Americans would struggle to identify on maps. What percentage of Americans, for example, could identify Niger before the ambush that cost four Green Berets or Yemen before a Navy SEAL died there after Trump’s first military action (which he subsequently blamed on the generals)? Indeed, how many Americans could identify these countries now, even with U.S. troops having died there, ostensibly in the name of fighting terrorism and keeping America safe?
I’m both a baby boomer and a retired military officer. Looking back to the 20th century and in the context of the Cold War, when I thought of walls, images of Berlin came to mind, with desperate people risking life and limb to seek freedom in the West. A wall was a symbol of them – you know, the Evil Empire, the Soviets, the Stasi, the freedom-deniers. The USA, land of liberty, neither needed nor wanted walls. Weapons? Sure, we had plenty of those when I was young, and sold lots of them too to countries overseas, when we weren’t using them ourselves to pummel Southeast Asia and other regions. But military-style assault weapons for citizens were virtually unknown until the 1980s, and extensive weapons sales overseas had a purpose (at least in theory) of deterring communist expansion. Nowadays, weapons sales need have no purpose other than profit for those who make and sell them.
And wars? However evil the U.S. had acted during the Vietnam War, and indeed there’s much evil in policies that enjoin troops to “kill anything that moves,” as Nick Turse has documented in his book by that name, at least one thing can be said of that war: it ended, and America lost. Even the Cold War ended (or so we believed, until recent claims that Russia and China represent the threats of the future). Today, America’s wars never end. Retired generals like David Petraeus spout gibberish about the wisdom of a “sustainable sustained commitment” to the war in Afghanistan, with the Pentagon babbling on about “long” and “generational” campaigns, as if prolonging wars for less-than-vital causes is a sign of U.S. strength.
The point is this: Walls were not us. Weapons, however prevalent throughout U.S. history, were not treated as panaceas and sold as solutions to everything from classroom shootings to saving American jobs to boosting economic growth and cutting trade imbalances. Even America’s wars were not open-ended or openly described as “generational.” All of this is either new today or a twisted version of past policies and practices.
The Unmaking of American Idealism
As a teenager, I embraced American idealism. The bicentennial was coming in 1976, and I was the proud owner of a reproduction of the Declaration of Independence. It was on pseudo-parchment paper, a cheap copy for sure, but I treated it as if were precious because it was – and is. It’s precious for the ideals it represents, the enshrinement of self-evident truths like life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, however imperfectly America upheld and advanced these in practice.
Maybe this is why I bought a roll of American flag stickers and stuck them on everything (including our kitchen door and our washing machine, which must have thrilled my parents). Back then, I thought I knew what America stood for, or at least what my country stood against. Despite all our sins, America was anti-wall, and even as we built and sold weapons and fought proxy wars in a contest with the Soviets, there was a sense America stood for freedom, or so I believed. Meanwhile, in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam, we were also not as eager to fight wars everywhere and without end.
But that was then, and this is now. Forget about the “Age of Aquarius,” a trippy song about peace and love that I remember singing when I was eight years old. Today in America, it’s the Age of Mars, the Age of Walls and Weapons and War.
Coming of age in the 1970s, I heard and read a lot about war. Vietnam had been a disaster, but there was always the example of World War II to set things right in my mind. I could read about American heroism at Wake Island and during the Battle of the Bulge; I could watch movies like “Patton” that glorified tough-talking U.S. generals; I could look to my uncle who won a bronze star fighting at Guadalcanal in the Pacific. I knew (or so I thought) that America stood for freedom and against tyranny.
But that ideal of freedom was always tinged by images of violent frontier justice, as depicted in popular culture. Memorable movies of my teen years included Clint Eastwood playing a rogue cop in “Dirty Harry,” Charles Bronson playing a shattered vigilante in “Death Wish,” and John Wayne playing tough cop roles in movies like “McQ” and “Brannigan.” These movies were clear about one thing: the rule of law wasn’t enough to keep us safe. Sometimes, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, which usually involved Clint or Chuck or John (and, later, Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo) dispensing justice with fists and from the barrels of various (big) guns.
Extreme violence as well as images of the lone gunfighter were and are features of American history and culture, of course. But these were counterbalanced in the 1960s and 1970s by peace anthems such as John Lennon’s “Imagine.” A less known song, one I sang as a kid, was “Billy don’t be a hero” (how could I resist: It had my name in it). In this song, young Billy wants to go off to war, but his fiancée discourages him. Predictably, Billy goes anyway, the words of his fiancée following him (Billy don’t be a hero/don’t be a fool with your life). Billy, after volunteering for a dangerous mission, dies a hero, the government sending a laudatory letter to his fiancée, who tearfully tosses it into the trash.
That song made an impression, though it didn’t stop me from joining the military. Why? Because I bought the narrative: the U.S. was fighting a war of survival against godless communism, showing patient resolve as we worked to contain a threat to freedom around the world.
That cold war ended more than 25 years ago, yet nevertheless the U.S. continues to build and sell more weapons than any other country; to support higher and higher military spending; and to wage more wars in more places than ever. Clinton or Bush, Obama or Trump, the war song remains the same. It all represents a narrowing of national horizons, a betrayal of American promise, one we’ll overcome only when we change course and reject walls and weapons and war.
Stopping Walls, Weapons, and Wars
There are two war parties in the U.S. today. We call them Republicans and Democrats. When it comes to fostering and feeding war, both are essentially the same. Both are slaves to the national security state, even if Democrats make a show of rattling their chains a bit more. Both define patriotism in militaristic terms and loyalty in terms of blanket support of, even reverence for, American military adventurism and interventionism. Political candidates who have rival ideas, such as Libertarian Gary Johnson (remember him?) or Green Party candidate Jill Stein, are not even allowed on the stage. Even when heard, they’re dismissed as jokes.
In 2016, for example, Johnson suggested cuts to military spending approaching 20%; Jill Stein suggested cuts as deep as 50%. Their proposals, however, were simply rejected as preposterous by the mainstream media. Even Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, refused to propose serious cuts to military spending: if he had, he knew he’d be dismissed as either a weak-kneed appeaser or an unserious ignoramus. (Recall how Gary Johnson was depicted as clueless by the mainstream media because he couldn’t place Aleppo in Syria or instantly name a foreign leader he adored.)
Unmasked military authoritarianism is the new reality in U.S. government and society today, complete with a martial parade in Washington, D.C. come this November. This is no surprise. Recall how both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump boasted of how many generals and admirals supported them in their respective presidential campaigns, as if they couldn’t run for office unless they’d been anointed by men in military uniforms wearing stars.
And we dare call this a democracy?
Seeing the problem clearly is a way to begin to solve it. Want to restore American liberty? Stop building walls (and tearing children from parents). Stop buying and selling massive amounts of weaponry here and everywhere. And stop waging war across the globe. Americans used to know the chief result of divisive walls, proliferating weapons, and endless war is chaos everywhere and democracy nowhere. How did we come to forget this lesson?
If we take these simple yet profound steps, I could look again at my childhood copy of the Declaration of Independence with a renewed sense of hope.