Last week, Army General Raymond “Tony” Thomas, head of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM), expressed his dismay about the Trump administration. “Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil,” Thomas opined. “I hope they sort it out soon because we’re a nation at war.”
What does that mean, we’re a nation at war? Many will think that a dumb question, but is it? Sure, we have roughly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, and that war isn’t over. Sure, the U.S. is still helping Iraqi forces (notably in Mosul) against ISIS and related terrorist groups. Yes, the U.S. and NATO (joined by Russia?) are seeking to corral and eventually to end ISIS and “radical Islamic extremism/terrorism.” But do these efforts constitute a world war, like World Wars I and II?
It doesn’t feel like a war — not in the USA, at least. Congress has made no formal declaration of war. Few Americans are sacrificing (of course, the troops in harm’s way are). There’s no rationing. No tax increases to pay for the war. No national mobilization of resources. No draft. No change in lifestyles or priorities. Nothing. Most Americans go about their lives oblivious to the “war” and its progress (or lack thereof).
Here’s my point. Terrorism, whether radical Islamist or White supremacist or whatever variety, will always be with us. Yes, it must be fought, and in a variety of ways. Police action is one of them. Political and social changes, i.e. reforms, are another. Intelligence gathering. Occasionally, military action is warranted. But to elevate terrorism to an existential threat is to feed the terrorists. “War” is what they want; they feed on that rhetoric of violence, a rhetoric that elevates their (self)-importance. Why feed them?
Another aspect of this: a war on terrorism is essentially a permanent war, since you’ll never get rid of all terrorists. And permanent war is perhaps the greatest enemy of democracy — and a powerful enabler of autocrats. James Madison saw this as clearly as anyone:
Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debt and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manner and of morals, engendered in both. No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare …
After reading Madison, does anyone dedicated to democracy really want to be “at war” for, well, generations? Forever?
Of course, there’s another aspect to General Thomas’s critique that must be mentioned, and that’s his audacity in criticizing the government (and, by extension, his commander-in-chief) for not having its act together in “the war.” Generals are supposed to fight wars, not critique in public the government they serve.
War rhetoric doesn’t just inspire terrorists and empower autocrats while weakening democracy: It also emboldens generals. They begin to think that, if the nation is at war, they should have a powerful role in making sure it runs well, until the state becomes an apparatus of the military (as it did in Germany during World War I, when Field Marshal Hindenburg and General Ludendorff ran Germany from 1916 to its collapse in November 1918). The Trump administration has already put (long-serving and recently retired) generals at the helm of defense, homeland security, and the National Security Council. Remember the days when civilians filled these positions?
One more point: If the U.S. is now “a nation at war,” when, do tell, will we return to being a nation at peace? If the answer is, “When the last terrorist is eliminated,” say goodbye right now to what’s left of American democracy.
Editor’s Intro: Linda Roller is a good friend who owns one of those used bookstores that bibliophiles dream about, complete with cats and books and ephemera and located in an old church in the middle of rural Pennsylvania. It’s an area that went for Trump in last year’s election; it’s not an area associated with political activism for progressive causes. Yet Linda’s community filled three buses of concerned citizens, all willing to sacrifice their time to make a statement in a March on Washington that was, in a word common to last year’s election, huge. Can the momentum for a true people’s movement be sustained? With powerful women like Linda on the march, I am hopeful. W.J. Astore
Check out Linda’s bookstore at this link. She has a great selection of used books at low prices.
I Went Down to The Demonstration…
The March on Washington can be seen — six hours of it — on You Tube. I almost tuned in the other day, but I resisted until I had a chance to write down what I saw there. For I never saw the speeches, heard the words. I never saw the jumbotrons. And I never got to the elliptical. But that’s okay. That was recorded, and what I saw was the stuff that is not covered by any media, but was important to me and will be with me forever.
Waiting on the World to Change…
Perhaps the first inkling that this was going to be far more than “a bus ride and a demonstration” was the early morning in a Sears parking lot in Muncy, Pennsylvania. A sea of cars was there, just waiting for the three buses from our rural, conservative, suspicious of outsiders (both people and ideas) area. It wasn’t just the people who demonstrate here, and who identify themselves as “true Progressives.” Frankly, that group wouldn’t fill a bus. It was really a diverse lot of folks, and although there were many older, white women, there were African-American women from Williamsport, and even a good percentage of people under 40. The women who organized this trip were not the “usual suspects,” which may account for the different people on the buses.
The trip started with a glitch. Two of the three buses were late — the buses organized through the national group. This could have led to defections, but … people waited. The local bus left to collect the women from down the Susquehanna valley. The other arrived an hour later.
The chief organizer here is a woman who owns her own little yarn and knitting shop, and has never done anything like this before. But the knitting connection was the catalyst for all members who wanted to get a “pussy hat.” She had hats from around the globe, the last shipment being from Australia. Mine was knitted by Lori in Indianapolis, and it warmed me to know that another woman from a conservative state felt strongly enough to knit for others. Both buses stopped at a rather small service station, with a small women’s restroom. We discovered that the men’s room was even smaller, as we commandeered it for the over 75 women who had to use it in less than 30 minutes. One guy tried to assert his rights, and we were apologetic but firm.
Normally, leaving from here at 5:20am on a weekend morning would get you to DC by 9:30 or so on a charter bus. But traffic was amazingly heavy, and we got in a little late. The bus captains went over safety tips, non-confrontation issues, how not to be arrested—and that the buses were leaving at 6:30pm, with or without us. And then we got off the bus.
Fired Up! — Ready to Go!!
Off the bus in an ocean of buses…from everywhere! The first woman I met was from San Francisco, visiting family in Delaware and marching. We had been told that the metro was too full, even though the Mayor of DC had brought all lines up to rush hour levels to accommodate the march. I saw an older woman in a walker headed to the metro stop at RFK stadium from the buses, with the kind of determination that moves mountains. And with that, our group of four headed to the National Mall, a little over two miles away. Although our group were the only people that I could locate from the bus at that moment, we were hardly alone. We were simply part of a river streaming ahead, north and west to the center. And we were not invisible. We were met early by DC traffic safety, who reminded us to mind the roads near RFK, to block some roads, and with a smile welcoming us to DC. “We’re glad you’re here!”
Indeed, it seemed as though all the good citizens of the District were out to welcome the marchers, as we blocked their streets and removed any way for these folks to move cars and go about a normal Saturday. They waved, said “Thank you for coming!” Members of Capitol Hill Seventh Day Adventist Church stood on the steps and chanted, and the minister came down and shook marchers’ hands, as we disrupted their day of worship. About halfway to the National Mall, the signs with quotes from Martin Luther King popped up everywhere, for MLK day was less than a week ago. Music poured out of windows for the marchers — “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”… (as in Fundamental Rights).
And with that it began to feel like something even bigger—it all began to take on echoes of other marches, other days, other people. By now, we were chanting, and really marching. Five blocks out, and we were already there, doing the work we came to DC to do. And then we got to the US Capitol Building, and the enormity of it all washed over our group of marchers. Before us, there was an ocean of people—people who were deeply concerned, and here to stand. To stand for Women’s Equality, for immigrants who feel threatened, for people of every race, creed, religion, sexual orientation, and for a sense of justice. And yes, to show concern and anger at President Trump’s statements and actions. But the overall feeling was that we stood in solidarity with one another, even if we did not totally agree on all the issues.
Before I left, I did a small piece on Facebook about why I marched, and one of the things that I said was that I marched for those who could not. Time and time again, people talked about a mother, a sister, a friend that was symbolically with the marcher. One woman I saw had a placard on her back with over 50 names of women she marched for. It was simply staggering.
Standing on the Side of Love
Like I said, I never saw the stage, or heard the addresses of the day. There was no chance that I could get there. I never saw the jumbotrons where proceedings were broadcast. That’s okay. I saw and talked to people just like me from all over the country, and people just like me but different. They had different clothes, different hair, different skin, different religion, different age—but the same heartfelt wishes, the same fears for the future, the same willingness to stand and be here today.
And those of us who made a march were kind to each other — all our Mommas had made polite people on this day. And that was tested—as there were few places to sit, no places to get a bite to eat or drink, and in many places on the National Mall, no place even to stand. At one point, the four of us were crushed against a barrier, and could not move. A woman in the crowd began to have a claustrophobic reaction, and the people made a tunnel for her and her people to get out of there, even when so many others would have liked to move. We apologized for stepping on toes, we allowed people in and around, and most importantly, we talked to each other, asked where we were from, and regarded each other as people. And at noon, a group of Muslim women unfolded blankets and prayed, while others gave them space and peace.
Sure, I saw some great signs. One person knitted a 4-5 foot uterus as a sign. That’s dedication. A group walked about with a 10-12 foot globe and chanted. That’s heavy lifting. Lots of humorous signs, signs of exasperation. Organized signs. Disorganized signs. Signs made by people for weeks, signs made by people after they got there, on scraps of cardboard. And the “official” signs were incredibly artistic and you could download them for free and print them.
There was some “cosplay” too. I marched beside Wonder Woman for about 3 minutes. WW must have been cold in the outfit, and I have no idea who it was. I saw a few Superwoman socks – the ones with the capes on them. Since most of us marched around 10 miles if we walked from RFK, I think we all were worthy of a set of those. I saw some Power Rangers get photographed, and on the top of pallet stacks, people climbed and tried to help the rest of us see where people were needed. People on lampposts tried to give directions, but that was mostly futile.
Tell Me What Democracy Looks Like…This is What Democracy Looks Like!!!
In some sense, the wheels had fallen off this wagon. The planned speeches and march were simply dwarfed by the numbers of people. We couldn’t march the planned route. It was full, as were many other streets. We couldn’t get to the Washington Monument. The way there was full of people – and in that sense, it was a complete, perpetual march around everything by all of us.
The most common chant was “This is what democracy looks like.” Indeed. It is the look of citizens– concerned, aroused citizens. It was a whole lot of a gentle, angry people. Some more gentle, some more angry—and all of them chanting for a country they all deeply believe in. That this march was so large had an impact that transcended the original plans. And while we marched, information about all the other marches all over the world swirled through the National Mall to waves of cheers.
Finally, it was the witching hour – the time to go back to the bus. We worked our way out of the mall and began the slog up to RFK. We were so hungry, with sore feet. A beer in a pub would have been heaven, but heaven was already claimed by others, and the wait was too long for us to meet the bus. We eventually found a coffee shop. Nancy got us a chai latte, and nothing ever tasted so good or felt so warm. I sat on the curb outside, just for a chance to sit. And I sat with others from the march, and we talked, waited for a little bit of food, took the chance to relax, and talked about the march – but not in a “processed” sort of way.
It was as if the event was too big to be contained inside us. Cars going by honked and waved. On the way to try for a beer, we crossed in front of a car, filled with people we did not know. But the windows rolled down, and we talked to each other. They were not even involved in the march, just locals. But the signs and buttons made us approachable, and the day of talking to so many people in the march had our skills oiled up, too. At the coffee shop, we all decided that if we could get a cab or uber, we would take a ride for the 2 miles. It wasn’t long before we had that cab, and then got up to RFK. And that move allowed some shirt buying, a round of great hot dogs, and then the ½ mile from the actual stadium to the bus.
Laura and Nancy had a much better idea of where our bus was than I did and there we were—near the back of the lot. All the people on our bus made it back by 6:30, but we waited for a couple people in the second bus, who ended up taking a taxi back. On the road by 7PM. Nancy organized a better bus stop at a different location, where there were two large gas/convenience store/restrooms. We talked a bit, but surprisingly we slept, even though we thought we were too excited to do that.
The days since have been “processing days”—time to think about what happened and time to begin the plan beyond the march. The march was a mountaintop moment. It was a place and time, a gathering of like-minded people, a time to feel connected, and a time to feel the power of the people. Now the hard work of creating and recreating the vision continues.
I have not been an activist for many years. I feel that demonstrations are performance art. I am more at home in the life of the mind. But as the sign says,
“Thank you, President Trump.
You have created an activist in me.”
Linda Roller is a writer and owner of a used bookstore in Avis, PA. Be sure to visit her shop (link here) and browse her selection of used books at great prices.
But America has been edging toward post-truth for a long time — even at its founding, skeptics might say. The “City on a Hill,” forged on an image of Christian rectitude, witnessed the genocide of Native Americans (“savages”) and the embrace of slavery based on specious theories of racial inferiority, even as the Bible taught the love of neighbor and the equality of all before God.
More recently, America has witnessed the triumph of post-truth in the aftermath of 9/11. Recall how the attacks on 9/11 were falsely connected to Iraq, which was then connected to false claims of Iraq having active programs of WMD development, including “yellowcake” uranium as well as chemical and biological agents spread by aerial drones. All proven false, but all used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Indeed, many Americans continue to believe that Saddam Hussein planned the 9/11 attacks (in league with Osama Bin Laden). Recall here the rare honesty of Britain’s Downing Street Memo of 2002, which asserted that the “facts” being offered by the Bush/Cheney administration were being manufactured (“fixed”) around a pre-determined policy of invasion. The result? Iraq was yet another un-democratic war, based in part on lies. Indeed, it’s no accident that Congress hasn’t issued a formal declaration of war since 1941. (Another war based on lies: the Vietnam War, e.g. recall the false reports of attacks at Tonkin Gulf.)
Another example of post-truth was the Surge of 2007, advertised as a “win” for America even as General David Petraeus warned that progress in Iraq was both “fragile” and “reversible.” So it has proved, for here we are, a decade later, trying to recapture territory (such as Mosul) that had allegedly been pacified under Petraeus.
America’s post-truth crew has now been captured by a shameless con man, the Tweeter-in-chief, Donald Trump. Recall a saying often attributed to P.T. Barnum that “a sucker is born every minute.” Trump knows this — and will exploit it to the hilt, if the American people let him.
As January 20th approaches, Americans need to prepare themselves for a post-truth presidency. As my dad used to say to me: “Don’t believe anything that you read and only half of what you see.” Wise words for the days and years to come, but they come with a major problem. Some sense of truth, of consensus based on acknowledged facts and a rigorous and fair-minded process of reasoning, is needed for a democracy to function.
Without integrity, which is based on facts and honesty and a willingness to reason together in good will and with honorable intentions, democracy simply cannot function. Put simply, a post-truth America is an anti-democratic America. For without truth, without some consensus based on facts, all you have is lies, misinformation, and spin: a foundation of sand upon which nothing of worth can be built.
In a longer article for TomDispatch.com, I recently wrote about Donald Trump’s team of generals for national defense and homeland security. Trump wants four senior retired generals, two from the Army and two from the Marine Corps, to serve as his senior civilian advisers in matters of defense and security.
Here’s the point: You simply can’t have civilian control of the military when you appoint senior generals to these positions.
I’m astonished more Americans aren’t outraged at this. It’s a sign of how much militarism has gripped our nation and government, as well as the sweep and scope of the national security state.
I was reading Samuel Hynes’ excellent book, The Soldiers’ Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War, and came across two passages that resonated with me. In talking about war as a culture, Hynes notes that “Military traditions, values, and patterns of behavior penetrate every aspect of army [and Marine Corps] life and make the most ordinary acts and feelings different.”
The generals Trump is hiring are all military careerists, men whose “traditions, values, and patterns of behavior” are steeped in the ways of the Army and Marine Corps, affecting even “the most ordinary acts and feelings.” Their behavior, their commitments, their loyalties, their world views, are the antithesis to civilian culture and to the ethos of democracy. (For example, General James Mattis, Trump’s selection as Secretary of Defense, is most often described as a “warrior-monk,” a man with a Spartan-like dedication to war. But would Athens have anointed a Spartan, even as its minister of war?)
Again, the point is not to attack the military. It’s that the U.S. government already has plenty of generals in charge, wielding enormous authority. Trump’s decision to add yet another layer of military authority to his government makes it less of a democracy and more of a junta.
A second point from Hynes. He notes how most citizen-soldiers in America’s military past were not war-lovers, but that a few were, notably General George S. Patton. In the same breath, Hynes notes that dictators like Hitler and Mussolini “loved war.”
Which American general does Trump profess to admire the most? George S. Patton. And who among his generals most resembles Patton as a “real” warrior? According to Trump, it’s General Mattis.
Again, the point is not to attack the military, but rather to note the U.S. national security state already has plenty of warriors and warfighters in charge. Putting an alleged Patton-clone in charge of the Pentagon represents an abrogation of two centuries of American tradition that insisted on civilian supremacy over the military.
Given his inflammatory tweets about nuclear arms races with their “bring it on” mentality, Trump has all the makings of tinpot provocateur, an unstable military poseur who likes to speak loudly while swinging a nuclear-tipped stick. Will Trump’s generals, his Pattons and MacArthurs, serve as a check to his provocations and his posturings? It doesn’t seem likely.
Congress should reject Trump’s choices for Secretary of Defense (Mattis) and Homeland Security (Kelly). Not because these retired generals are bad men, but because they are the wrong kind of people. If you want civilian control of the military (and don’t we still want that?), you need to hire true civilians. Men and women whose identities haven’t been forged in armories. Independent thinkers and patriots with some history of dissent.
How about someone like Daniel Ellsberg for Secretary of Defense? And, since global warming is a huge threat to the U.S., how about Bill McKibben for Homeland Security?
After all, whether they’re in or out of uniform, the U.S. government already has plenty of generals.
In the crusade against Communism, otherwise known as the Cold War, the U.S. saw “freedom” as its core strength. Our liberties were contrasted with the repression of our chief rival, the USSR. We drew strength from the idea that our system of government, which empowered people whose individualism was guided by ethics based on shared values, would ultimately prevail over godless centralism and state-enforced conformity. An important sign of this was our belief in citizen-soldiers rather than warriors, and a military controlled by democratically-elected civilians rather than by dictators and strong men.
Of course, U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War could be amoral or immoral, and ethics were often shunted aside in the name of Realpolitik. Even so, morality was nevertheless treated as important, and so too were ethics. They weren’t dismissed out of hand.
Fast forward to today. We no longer see “freedom” as a core U.S. strength. Instead, too many of us see freedom as a weakness. In the name of defeating radical Islamic terrorism, we’ve become more repressive, even within the USA itself. Obedience and conformity are embraced instead of individualism and liberty. In place of citizen-soldiers, professional warriors are now celebrated and the military is given the lion’s share of federal resources without debate. Trump, a CEO rather than a statesman, exacerbates this trend as he surrounds himself with generals while promising to obliterate enemies and to revive torture.
In short, we’ve increasingly come to see a core national strength (liberty, individualism, openness to others) as a weakness. Thus, America’s new crusades no longer have the ethical underpinnings (however fragile they often proved) of the Cold War. Yes, the Cold War was often unethical, but as Tom Engelhardt notes at TomDispatch.com today, the dirty work was largely covert, i.e. we were in some sense embarrassed by it. Contrast this to today, where the new ethos is that America needs to go hard, to embrace the dark side, to torture and kill, all done more or less openly and proudly.
Along with this open and proud embrace of the dark side, America has come increasingly to reject science. During the Cold War, science and democracy advanced together. Indeed, the superior record of American science vis-à-vis that of the Soviet Union was considered proof of the strength and value of democracy. Today, that is no longer the case in America. Science is increasingly questioned; evidence is dismissed as if it’s irrelevant. “Inconvenient truths” are no longer recognized as inconvenient — they’re simply rejected as untrue. Consider the astonishing fact that we have a president-elect who’s suggested climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China.
Yesterday, I saw the following comment online, a comment that summed up the new American ethos: “Evidence and facts are for losers.” After all, President-elect Trump promised America we’d win again. Let’s not let facts get in the way of “victory.”
That’s what a close-minded crusader says. That the truth doesn’t matter. All that matters is belief and faith. Obey or suffer the consequences.
Where liberty is eroded and scientific evidence is denied, you don’t have democracy. You have something meaner. And dumber. Something like autocracy, kleptocracy, idiocracy. And tyranny.
Back in 2010, I wrote an article for TomDispatch.com in which I compared the U.S. government and its corporate handlers to a kleptocracy. Here’s what I wrote:
What drives America today is, in fact, business — just as was true in the days of Calvin Coolidge. But it’s not the fair-minded “free enterprise” system touted in those freshly revised Texas guidelines for American history textbooks; rather, it’s a rigged system of crony capitalism that increasingly ends in what, if we were looking at some other country, we would recognize as an unabashed kleptocracy.
That’s what we’re witnessing right now with Trump and his family: crony capitalism. Unabashed kleptocracy. It’s nothing new, except now it’s being done openly and unapologetically by the president-elect, who claims the law of the land says he can’t have conflicts of interest, because as president he’s exempted from those laws.
Recall the saying that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. Trump is both tragedy and farce, but more than anything, he’s a tragedy for our democracy.
Here’s more of what I wrote back in 2010. It’s prescient, I think, and I’m not proud to say that:
An old Roman maxim enjoins us to “let justice be done, though the heavens fall.” Within our kleptocracy, the prevailing attitude is an insouciant “We’ll get ours, though the heavens fall.” This mindset marks the decline of our polity. A spirit of shared sacrifice, dismissed as hopelessly naïve, has been replaced by a form of tribalized privatization in which insiders find ways to profit no matter what.
Tom Engelhardt documents Trump’s opportunistic greed in his latest introduction to Nick Turse’s humorously painful article on the farce that is Trump. Here’s what Engelhardt has to say about Trump’s emerging kleptocracy:
Trump is a family man in every sense of the word. His business is a family business. No matter what anyone tells you, there’s no more way to separate him from his brand, with his kids running it, than there is to separate a shark from the ocean or Ivanka from her line of jewelry. There’s no way this administration can be anything but a walking, talking conflict of interest of a kind never before seen or even imagined in this country. It’s easy, in fact, to guarantee one thing: that foreign business and political interests will have a field day when it comes to applying pressure to the new American president.
Truer words were never written. Imagine placing Gordon “Greed is Good” Gekko (he of cinematic “Wall Street” infamy) in charge of America, and that’s Trump, except Trump seems to have even fewer scruples.
Anyway, the intrepid Nick Turse journeyed to Trump Tower in Manhattan to survey the farce that is the Trump transition team. I urge you to read his article in full, but here’s his conclusion:
Descending the switchback escalators [in the Trump Tower], I found myself gazing at the lobby where a scrum of reporters stood waiting for golden elevator doors to open, potentially disgorging a Trump family member or some other person hoping to serve at the pleasure of the next president. Behind me water cascaded several stories down a pink marble wall, an overblown monument to a bygone age of excess. Ahead of me, glass cases filled with Trump/Pence 2016 T-shirts, colognes with the monikers “Empire” and “Success,” the iconic red “Make America Great Again” one-size-fits-all baseball cap, stuffed animals, and other tchotchkes stood next to an overflowing gilded garbage can. Heading for the door, I thought about all of this and Joe [a secret service agent] and his commando-chic colleague and Trump’s deserted private-public park, and the army of cops, the metal barricades, and the circus that awaited me on the street. I felt I’d truly been given some hint of the future, a whisper of what awaits. I also felt certain I’d be returning to Trump Tower — and soon.
Circus, indeed. Trump has mastered that, but will he provide the bread as well to complete the bread and circuses pairing? And will the people be satisfied with empty spectacle and a few crumbs of bread as Trump takes America for a kleptocratic ride?
It was said about the Emperor Nero that he fiddled while Rome burned. Instead of fiddling, Trump, one assumes, will make deals and sell trinkets, all for his personal profit, even as American democracy burns.
Welcome to kleptocracy in the open, America. As the inferno rages, remember this happy fact: For only $10,000 you too can wear Ivanka’s bracelet!
My latest article at TomDispatch.com focuses on the need for military dissent in an age of creeping militarism and perpetual war. In my article, I identify some of the key reasons why such dissent is tightly constrained and often severely limited. This is especially problematic for at least two reasons. The first is that Americans say they trust the military more than any other societal institution. If the military censors itself, it misses an invaluable opportunity to educate an attentive public about the disastrous path of America’s wars.
The second reason is that a democracy’s health depends on dissent. A country in which dissent is suppressed, a country that finds itself engaged in perpetual war, is a country that cannot sustain democratic institutions. We’re already witnessing the withering away of democracy in America. That it’s happening in slow motion doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening.
A Marine Corps sergeant and Vietnam War veteran wrote to me in “salty” language that “his damn war [was] fucked up,” but that while he was still in uniform he “spoke little [against the war] and only then about how it was being run.” We need more honesty from today’s veterans about how America’s damn wars are fucked up. Maybe then we’ll finally get off our duffs and work to put a stop to them.
Here are a few excerpts from my article; I invite you to read all of it at TomDispatch.com.
The Pentagon has, in a very real sense, become America’s national cathedral. If we’re going to continue to worship at it, we should at least ask for some minimal level of honesty from its priests. In militarized America, the question of the moment is how to encourage such honesty.
Call it patriotic dissent. By “dissent” I mean honest talk from those who should know best about the hazards and horrors of perpetual war, about how poorly those conflicts have gone and are going. We desperately need to encourage informed critics and skeptics within the military and the [Military-Industrial] Complex to speak their minds in a way that moves the national needle away from incessant bombing and perpetual war.
Yet to do so, we must first understand the obstacles involved. It’s obvious, for example, that a government which has launched a war against whistleblowers, wielding the World War I-era Espionage Act against them and locking away Chelsea Manning for a veritable lifetime in a maximum security prison, isn’t likely to suddenly encourage more critical thinking and public expression inside the national security state. But much else stands in the way of the rest of us hearing a little critical speech from the “fourth branch” of government …
Leaving military insularity, unit loyalty, and the pressure of combat aside, however, here are seven other factors I’ve witnessed, which combine to inhibit dissent within military circles.
1. Careerism and ambition: The U.S. military no longer has potentially recalcitrant draftees — it has “volunteers.” Yesteryear’s draftees were sometimes skeptics; many just wanted to endure their years in the military and get out. Today’s volunteers are usually believers; most want to excel. Getting a reputation for critical comments or other forms of outspokenness generally means not being rewarded with fast promotions and plum assignments. Career-oriented troops quickly learn that it’s better to fail upwards quietly than to impale yourself on your sword while expressing honest opinions. If you don’t believe me, ask all those overly decorated generals of our failed wars you see on TV.
2. Future careerism and ambition: What to do when you leave the military? Civilian job options are often quite limited. Many troops realize that they will be able to double or triple their pay, however, if they go to work for a defense contractor, serving as a military consultant or adviser overseas. Why endanger lucrative prospects (or even your security clearance, which could be worth tens of thousands of dollars to you and firms looking to hire you) by earning a reputation for being “difficult”?
3. Lack of diversity: The U.S. military is not blue and red and purple America writ small; it’s a selective sampling of the country that has already winnowed out most of the doubters and rebels. This is, of course, by design. After Vietnam, the high command was determined never to have such a wave of dissent within the ranks again and in this (unlike so much else) they succeeded. Think about it: between “warriors” and citizen-soldiers, who is more likely to be tractable and remain silent?
4. A belief that you can effect change by working quietly from within the system: Call it the Harold K. Johnson effect. Johnson was an Army general during the Vietnam War who considered resigning in protest over what he saw as a lost cause. He decided against it, wagering that he could better effect change while still wearing four stars, a decision he later came deeply to regret. The truth is that the system has time-tested ways of neutralizing internal dissent, burying it, or channeling it and so rendering it harmless.
5. The constant valorization of the military: Ever since 9/11, the gushing pro-military rhetoric of presidents and other politicians has undoubtedly served to quiet honest doubts within the military. If the president and Congress think you’re the best military ever, a force for human liberation, America’s greatest national treasure, who are you to disagree, Private Schmuckatelli?
America used to think differently. Our founders considered a standing army to be a pernicious threat to democracy. Until World War II, they generally preferred isolationism to imperialism, though of course many were eager to take land from Native Americans and Mexicans while double-crossing Cubans, Filipinos, and other peoples when it came to their independence. If you doubt that, just read War is a Racket by Smedley Butler, a Marine general in the early decades of the last century and two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor. In the present context, think of it this way: democracies should see a standing military as a necessary evil, and military spending as a regressive tax on civilization — as President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously did when he compared such spending to humanity being crucified on a cross of iron.
Chanting constant hosannas to the troops and telling them they’re the greatest ever — remember the outcry against Muhammad Ali when, with significantly more cause, he boasted that he was the greatest? — may make our military feel good, but it won’t help them see their flaws, nor us as a nation see ours.
6. Loss of the respect of peers: Dissent is lonely. It’s been more than a decade since my retirement and I still hesitate to write articles like this. (It’s never fun getting hate mail from people who think you’re un-American for daring to criticize any aspect of the military.) Small wonder that critics choose to keep their own counsel while they’re in the service.
7. Even when you leave the military, you never truly leave: I haven’t been on a military base in years. I haven’t donned a uniform since my retirement ceremony in 2005. Yet occasionally someone will call me “colonel.” It’s always a reminder that I’m still “in.” I may have left the military behind, but it never left me behind. I can still snap to attention, render a proper salute, recite my officer’s oath from memory.
In short, I’m not a former but a retired officer. My uniform may be gathering dust in the basement, but I haven’t forgotten how it made me feel when I wore it. I don’t think any of us who have served ever do. That strong sense of belonging, that emotional bond, makes you think twice before speaking out. Or at least that’s been my experience. Even as I call for more honesty within our military, more bracing dissent, I have to admit that I still feel a residual sense of hesitation. Make of that what you will.
Bonus Reason: Troops are sometimes reluctant to speak out because they doubt Americans will listen, or if they do, empathize and understand. It’s one thing to vent your frustrations in private among friends on your military base or at the local VFW hall among other veterans. It’s quite another to talk to outsiders. War’s sacrifices and horrors are especially difficult to convey and often traumatic to relive. Nevertheless, as a country, we need to find ways to encourage veterans to speak out and we also need to teach ourselves how to listen — truly listen — no matter the harshness of what they describe or how disturbed what they actually have to say may make us feel …
And I conclude my article in this way:
Some will doubtless claim that encouraging patriotic dissent within the military can only weaken its combat effectiveness, endangering our national security. But when, I wonder, did it become wise for a democracy to emulate Sparta? And when is it ever possible to be perfectly secure?