In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I argue for major cuts in military spending.
This year’s Pentagon budget is a staggering $778 billion, a sum that’s virtually unimaginable. That said, the real budget for “defense,” or, as we should say, the budget for wars and weapons, is well over a trillion dollars. This is madness. No self-avowed democracy can survive such a misappropriation of resources for domination and destruction. But of course America is not a democracy, it’s an empire, with a figurehead for a president and a Congress that acts as a rubber stamp for the generals and their weapons makers.
The military-industrial complex has become America’s fourth branch of government, eclipsing the roles and powers of the other three branches (executive, legislative, judicial). The only way to rein it in, I believe, is to cut its budget. In my article, I propose cutting that budget by $50 billion a year for the next seven years. Thus by Fiscal Year 2029, the Pentagon budget should be no more than $400 billion, still a vast sum, but roughly half of what we’re paying for war and weaponry today. Such cuts can be made sensibly and without harming America’s true defense needs. Indeed, a smaller U.S. military establishment will reduce adventurism and increase our security and safety.
Here’s the conclusion to my piece at TomDispatch.com. Please read the rest of it at the site. And I urge you as well to read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction, which provides stunning details about how America’s generals profit from endless wars and weapons production, so much so that “In wars and weapons we trust” could very well serve as America’s truest national motto.
Of Smoking Guns and Mushroom Clouds
What would real oversight look like when it comes to the defense budget? Again, glad you asked!
It would focus on actual defense, on preventing wars, and above all, on scaling down our gigantic military. It would involve cutting that budget roughly in half over the next few years and so forcing our generals and admirals to engage in that rarest of acts for them: making some tough choices. Maybe then they’d see the folly of spending $1.7 trillion on the next generation of world-ending weaponry, or maintaining all those military bases globally, or maybe even the blazing stupidity of backing China into a corner in the name of “deterrence.”
Here’s a radical thought for Congress: Americans, especially the working class, are constantly being advised to do more with less. Come on, you workers out there, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and put your noses to those grindstones!
To so many of our elected representatives (often sheltered in grotesquely gerrymandered districts), less money and fewer benefits for workers are seldom seen as problems, just challenges. Quit your whining, apply some elbow grease, and “git-r-done!”
The U.S. military, still proud of its “can-do” spirit in a warfighting age of can’t-do-ism, should have plenty of smarts to draw on. Just consider all those Washington “think tanks” it can call on! Isn’t it high time, then, for Congress to challenge the military-industrial complex to focus on how to do so much less (as in less warfighting) with so much less (as in lower budgets for prodigal weaponry and calamitous wars)?
For this and future Pentagon budgets, Congress should send the strongest of messages by cutting at least $50 billion a year for the next seven years. Force the guys (and few gals) wearing the stars to set priorities and emphasize the actual defense of this country and its Constitution, which, believe me, would be a unique experience for us all.
Every year or so, I listen again to Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex speech. In those final moments of his presidency, Ike warned Americans of the “grave implications” of the rise of an “immense military establishment” and “a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions,” the combination of which would constitute a “disastrous rise of misplaced power.” This country is today suffering from just such a rise to levels that have warped the very structure of our society. Ike also spoke then of pursuing disarmament as a continuous imperative and of the vital importance of seeking peace through diplomacy.
In his spirit, we should all call on Congress to stop the madness of ever-mushrooming war budgets and substitute for them the pursuit of peace through wisdom and restraint. This time, we truly can’t allow America’s numerous smoking guns to turn into so many mushroom clouds above our beleaguered planet.
Few people will be surprised to learn that the U.S. military is about conformity. Uniformity. Heck, it’s one reason why we wear uniforms to begin with. To a certain extent, individuality is tolerated but only if it’s harmless and doesn’t interfere with unit cohesion or performance — and, not just performance but image.
I can’t count the number of times I heard about my Air Force “family” when I wore the uniform, with the message I had to go along to get along; we’re all family, so stop grumbling and enjoy your “family” time.
A heavy stress on conformity can be a particular burden to civilian spouses, however, who didn’t necessarily think they were enlisting when their partner signed up and donned a uniform. In the bad old days, wives of officers were especially burdened with expectations. If they didn’t join officers’ wives’ clubs and otherwise “support” their husbands, they might find themselves ostracized from the “family.” Their husbands might see their careers suffer as well, not exactly a dynamic that promotes family values and amity at home.
Those bad old days are not entirely over, notes Andrea Mazzarino at TomDispatch.com, and being the wife of a U.S. Naval officer, she should know. I urge you to read her article here at TomDispatch. Nowadays, pressure takes new forms, notably on social media, that crazy 24/7/365 world, with email, Instagram, and Facebook posts (among other social sites) being scrutinized incessantly for right-thinking and right behavior, as judged by the self-anointed keepers of conformity and uniformity.
Militaries, again you won’t be surprised to learn, are not known to embrace criticism and non-conformity, which is why they should be kept as small as possible within a democracy that is supposed to celebrate or at least tolerate critiques and eccentrics. But here’s the rub: The more America celebrates its military and feeds it with money. the more it reinforces anti-democratic forces and tendencies within our larger society. And that’s not a good thing in a country where money is speech, i.e. where the richest already rule. (Which is no surprise to military members, as we all know the Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rules.)
Here’s an excerpt from Mazzarino’s article. Believe me, she knows of what she speaks.
Eyes Are Always On You
I know what it means to be watched all too carefully, a phenomenon that’s only grown worse in the war-on-terror years. I’m a strange combination, I suspect, being both a military spouse and an anti-war-on-terror activist. As I’ve discovered, the two sit uncomfortably in what still passes for one life. In this country in these years, having eyes on you has, sadly enough, become a common and widespread phenomenon. When it’s the government doing it, it’s called “surveillance.” When it’s your peers or those above you in the world of the military spouse, there’s no word for it at all.
Now, be patient with me while I start my little exploration of such an American state at the most personal level before moving on to the way in which we now live in ever more of a — yes — surveillance state.
A Navy Wife’s Perspective on Military Life, Post-9/11
“The military sounds like the mafia. Your husband’s rank determines how powerful you are.” That was a good friend’s response, a decade or so ago, when a more experienced Navy wife shamed me for revealing via text message that my husband’s nuclear submarine would soon return to port. Her spouse had been assigned to the same boat for a year longer than mine and she headed up the associated Family Readiness Group, or FRG.
Such FRGs, led by officers’ wives, are all-volunteer outfits that are supposed to support the families of the troops assigned to any boat. In a moment of thoughtless excitement, I had indeed texted another spouse, offering a hand in celebrating our husbands’ imminent return, the sort of party that, as the same woman had told me, “All wives help with to thank our guys for what they do for us. It’s key to command morale.”
She had described the signs other wives had been making under the direction of both the captain’s wife’s and hers, as well as the phone chain they had set up to let us know the moment the boat would arrive so that we could rush to the base to greet it. In response to my message, she’d replied in visibly angry form (that is, in all capital letters), “NEVER, EVER INDICATE IN ANY WAY OVER TEXT THAT THE BOAT WILL BE RETURNING SOON. YOU ARE ENDANGERING THEIR LIVES.” She added that I would be excluded from all boat activities if I ever again so much as hinted that such a return was imminent.
Alone in my apartment in a sparsely populated town near the local military base, my heart raced with the threat of further isolation. What would happen because of what I’d done?
And yes, I’d blundered, but not, as became apparent to me, in any way that truly mattered or actually endangered anything or anyone at all — nothing, in other words, that couldn’t have been dealt with in a kinder, less Orwellian fashion, given that this was a supposedly volunteer group.
It was my first little introduction to being watched and the pressure that goes with such surveillance in the world of the military spouse. Years later, when my husband was assigned to another submarine, an officer’s wife at the same naval base had burst into tears telling me about the surprise visit she’d just been paid by three women married to officers of higher rank on other boats stationed at that base.
Sitting across from her in their designer dresses, they insisted she wasn’t doing enough to raise raffle money to pay for a military child’s future education. Am I really responsible for sending another kid to college? That was her desperate question to me. Unable to keep a job, given her husband’s multiple reassignments, she had struggled simply to save enough for the education of her own children. And mind you, she was already providing weekly free childcare to fellow spouses unable to locate affordable services in that town, while counseling some wives who had become suicidal during their husbands’ long deployments.
I could, of course, multiply such examples, but you get the idea. In the war-on-terror-era military, eyes are always on you.
Married to the Military (or the Terror Within)
On paper, the American military strives to “recognize the support and sacrifice” of the 2.6 million spouses and children of active-duty troops. And there are indeed gestures in the right direction — from partnerships with employers who have committed to hiring military spouses to short-term-crisis mental-health support.
In a functioning democracy, which the USA decidedly isn’t, what would be the features of a necessary war, as in a war fought for defensive (and for defensible) reasons and purposes? Here are ten features that occur to me:
A necessary war would readily gain the approval of Congress, and indeed there would be a formal declaration of war issued by Congress.
National mobilization would be required to win as swiftly as possible.
All Americans could clearly state the reasons for the war and the end goals.
Americans would reject, as much as possible, a long and open-ended war, knowing that long wars are the enemy of democracy.
Nearly all sectors of society would share the war’s burdens. (Think here of celebrities like Jimmy Stewart and sports stars like Ted Williams, among so many others, doing their bit for the war effort in World War II.)
Sacrifices would be made on a national scale, including rationing of materials needed for the war effort.
Taxes would go up to pay for the war effort. War bonds might be sold as well. Deficit spending wouldn’t be used to hide the costs of the war.
Civilian leaders would be in control of the war effort. Military leaders who failed to produce results would be reassigned, demoted, or fired.
As much as possible, freedom of the press would be encouraged so that Americans knew the true course and costs of war.
When the war ended, again as quickly as possible, the nation would return to its default state of peace; military establishments bolstered during wartime would be demobilized.
Now let’s consider every U.S. war since World War II. Let’s focus especially on Iraq and Afghanistan. How many of these ten features would apply to these wars?
I’d argue that none of them apply.
That’s how you know these wars are not in the service of democracy, whether at home or overseas. They are also not defensive wars, nor are they defensible in ways that pass rigorous and honest debate among the people. (This is precisely why none of them came with Congressional declarations of war.)
I know my “top ten” list isn’t all-inclusive, but I think it’s a reasonable guide to whether the next war (and I’m sure more are coming) will be necessary and justifiable. It’s a safe bet it won’t be.
Readers, can you think of other ways we can tell whether war is truly justifiable? History teaches us that most wars are unjustifiable, offensive in nature, and therefore crimes against humanity.
In fact, since 1945 it’s often been America’s putative “enemies” who are more likely to be fighting a necessary war — it’s perhaps the chief reason why they so often win.
In sum, war is the enemy of democracy. You wage war long, you wage it wrong, assuming you want to keep a democracy. That so many American “thought-leaders” are still advocating for more war in Afghanistan is a clear sign that our country’s operating system is infected by malware that promotes militarism and war.
Purely by chance this morning, I came across old notes I took from historian John Lukacs’ study of Adolf Hitler. Lukacs said that Hitler’s genius “lay in his understanding of human weaknesses,” for which he had the nose of a vulture. Lukacs further identified him as a populist who used propaganda pragmatically. He knew what people wanted to hear, and not only the common people at his rallies, but prominent leaders whose illusions he recognized and exploited.
For example, Hitler wasn’t religious, but he presented himself as pro-Christian as a contrast to the atheism of his German communist opponents. He claimed to support families and moral order, what we today term “family values.” Hitler knew people were frustrated with the Weimar Republic, an experiment in parliamentary democracy in Germany after World War I; Lukacs uses the words “schismatic” and “chaotic” and “weak” to describe Hitler’s critique of democracy.
Hitler’s response was to appeal to nationalism (I’m a nationalist, he might have said) and a revival of Germany as a “spiritual community” in which class differences wouldn’t matter. Persecution among the right sort of Germans was to be avoided; instead, “good” (read: Aryan) Germans were to come together against racial and political enemies. Hitler’s goal, Lukacs said, was to achieve a tyranny not simply through violence but through a political majority, and he was incredibly successful at it.
Interestingly, Lukacs points out that Hitler convinced the Nazis in 1926 (when the Nazis were still very much a fringe party ostensibly for the working classes) to vote in favor of the restitution of property to German princes. In short, Hitler appeased powerful conservative elements within German society, Weimar Germany’s version of today’s 1%. He gained power legally as Chancellor early in 1933 by persuading Germany’s aging president, Paul von Hindenburg, that “The Bolshevization of the masses proceeds rapidly.” To an avowed monarchist like Hindenburg, it was worth the risk of appointing Hitler and empowering the Nazis so that the communist “mobs” could be put in their place.
Virtually everyone underestimated Hitler and the ruthlessness of his drive to power. He was often dismissed as crude, vulgar, harsh. As lacking class. Yet he knew his audience and he knew how to get his way in a deeply divided Germany.
Food for thought as Americans prepare to go to the polls.
Update (11/6/18): I’ve been re-reading Lukacs; two points I came across yesterday after writing this article:
Hitler said hate was a real strength of the Nazi party. We have learned to hate our political rivals, Hitler said, and that hatred makes us strong. In reading this, I thought of Trump and his efforts to demonize Democrats as a “mob” that wants to allow “invaders” (rapists, murderers) from Central America into the country. Also, of course, Trump’s denunciation of the media as “the enemy of the people.”
Even as Hitler was throwing communists and other rivals into concentration camps by the tens of thousands in 1933-34, he was lying about the growing threat to Germany coming from the left. Hitler knew the power of lies, the bigger the better, and used them to eliminate his rivals in the name of keeping Germany safe (“homeland security,” we might say).
Editor’s Note: Checking the news this morning, I saw the following report from Afghanistan:
“A suicide bomber blew himself up in the Afghan capital on Saturday, killing at least 15 people as voting concluded in parliamentary elections that were overshadowed by the threat of attacks and serious organizational problems.” Other attacks on a smaller scale killed or wounded dozens of others, noted the report. Meanwhile, the Taliban in Afghanistan called on people to boycott the elections.
Western efforts to bring (or impose) a semblance of democracy on Afghanistan have been deeply flawed from the beginning, notes Pamela in this article that she graciously agreed to write for this site. The Afghan people were told democracy would naturally follow from elections, but the reality has been far different and more tragic, notes Pamela based on her own experiences in observing prior elections. W.J. Astore
Today, October 20th, Afghanistan is to hold parliamentary and provincial elections which had been postponed since 2016. I’ve witnessed all the previous ones, with the local ones stirring more emotions among the population than the presidential ones.
The first one of these (in 2005) was very popular and people went to vote in droves. I worked then in Jalalabad, a rather traditional city close to the border with Pakistan. A colleague told me he was going to vote and what’s more, for a woman who had taught him in university ‘because women do not use guns to settle disputes and are not corrupted’ (the latter of course being debatable). Security was still reasonable; its abrupt decline did not start until 2006. As later became clear, however, that enthusiasm was the result of a misunderstanding.
People had been endlessly brainwashed that voting would bring ‘democracy’. And that in turn would miraculously produce the human rights, security & prosperity they were desperately yearning for after more than 25 years of wars and oppression. After all, if ‘democracy’ was to be judged by how well off its European and American adepts were, it clearly was worth voting for! Thus all these unfamiliar western concepts conflated in many people’s minds into a magic future of instant peace, security and prosperity.
It’s not like Afghans did not have their own forms of human rights and democratic ways of decision making including elected bodies who represented them, but our concepts as such were alien. Since 2005 even in rural areas the access to television and internet has increased tremendously, but in those days even in major cities electricity was rare and the internet hardly available and very expensive. Particularly illiterate persons (70% of the population) therefore had no way to supplement from public sources their limited understanding of what we proposed.
Our half-baked extension efforts led many people to believe that democracy and human rights were basically two terms for the same phenomenon and that to obtain that universal panacea, all they had to do is go and vote.
No wonder then, that by 2009 (presidential elections) and 2010 (parliamentary and provincial ones) they had realised that ‘democracy’ had not changed anything much and had not brought about the promised miracles, so enthusiasm for the elections was much less and so was turnout. Despite positive developments like more than 25 % of all seats in parliament being reserved for women, too many former warlords with blood on their hands were still ruling and there had been no accountability for the perpetrators of war crimes. Voting enthusiasm also waned because by then security had dramatically decreased as compared to 2005, so the risk of being maimed or even killed when voting for the democracy mirage was only too real. Billboards were supposed to ‘motivate’ people to go and vote in these ‘free and fair democratic elections’, as NATO was touting them.
Those presidential elections were the ones when the US openly repudiated the increasingly critical Hamid Karzai and then had to scramble to adjust the rhetoric when in spite of that he did win anyway. Interestingly, an amazing outsider came in third, Dr. Ramazan Bashardost. Amazing, because he is from the Hazara minority which always is at the bottom of the pecking order. But he inspired confidence as an honest person above corruption, he was no ancient warlord with blood on his hands, part of ‘the usual suspects’, or compromised with foreign powers. He would travel to election meetings in distant provinces by ordinary yellow taxi, as he had no limousine or other privileges.
The next presidential election took place in the fateful year 2014 – the one in which the foreign armies were to withdraw, which prospect had in the years leading up to it caused corruption at all levels to skyrocket to cash in before the dollar manna would dry up. I only witnessed the start of the presidential campaign, but the result is well known: endless squabbling between the two ‘winners’ – Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. John Kerry eventually brokered some sort of power-sharing compromise which created a government even more dysfunctional than the previous ones, which has been limping along ever since. Insecurity had again increased exponentially since 2009, which additionally demotivated voters.
As for the parliamentary & provincial elections which were scheduled for 2016, they never materialised and will be held only now (and presidential ones next year).
So now it’s 2018 and yet another round of this futile exercise, whose purpose evidently is to flatter our conscience and embellish our annual reports rather than to improve Afghan lives. The last time I was in Afghanistan was three years ago, so I cannot vouch for the opinions and feelings of the Afghans, but I do follow what is happening there. Several coordinated deadly attacks on voters’ registration centres already had severely limited the number of registered voters. Governmental attempts to inflate their number by relaxing control of voter identities additionally undermined the population’s trust in the election’s transparency.
Last minute distribution of electronic voting equipment can be expected to add to the confusion. This is a far cry from the ballot boxes which during the 2005 elections were transported under UN supervision to remote mountains areas on donkey-back.
The expanding presence of ISIL and their ruthless readiness to kill random civilians (particularly those of the Shia Hazara minority) rather than the Taliban’s usual foreign, military and governmental targets, adds to the risk of any involvement with the elections, whether by organising & securing them or as a mere voter.
Ten local candidates have already been killed in terrorist attacks, as well as many more accidental bystanders and members of the police and army when trying to protect voter registration centres and election rallies. Only yesterday, three top level authorities were killed in Kandahar, including the provincial governor and the police chief who had been fiercely anti-Taliban and had managed to introduce a modicum of security and order in what used to be the most dangerous part of the country. Therefore, the elections will be postponed for a week in Kandahar. According to the Taliban, their target in fact was General Miller – who ‘strongly denies’ this.
How many Afghans will be willing to risk their lives to vote and how many will be maimed or dead by the end of the day? And maybe most importantly, what will it change for the better for the Afghans who have lived under armed conflict for 39 years already, with no end in sight?
Update by Pamela (10/21/18): Few people are interested in Afghanistan anymore and that is understandable with Yemen and Syria being much bigger crises.
And now all are absorbed by the Jamal Khashoggi case, which has the collateral advantage to finally shine the light on Saudi crimes, but otherwise is another dreadful example of western hypocrisy. Millions of starving Yemenis could not produce the outcry that one — evidently well-connected — only mildly dissident Saudi did.
I understand that media are outraged as it concerns one of their own and journalists are threatened world-wide. But that does not apply to governments.
‘Disappearing’, torturing and killing one’s own (in addition to foreign) citizens has been done by all the countries who now sanctimoniously shed crocodile tears while silently praying that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo & Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (known as MBS) will manage to concoct an acceptable ‘explanation’, which will allow them to keep on selling arms to the Saudis and enjoy their investments.
A good example of that is the second part of a documentary about Qaddafi’s Libya, which highlights western collusion with him which led to rendition of Libyan dissidents including pregnant wives and children. Not to mention al Libi’s rendition to Egypt where this poor guy was tortured for six months until he agreed to sign a paper which stated that he had evidence of Saddam Hussein colluding with al-Qaeda, which ‘confession’ was used to ‘justify’ the war in Iraq in 2003.
After which he was sent back to Libya where he ‘committed suicide’ in prison, four days before the US reopened a consulate/embassy there. I’ve been following these cases since long ago, but this documentary added some more info:
I’ve been seeing a lot of headlines, and reading quite a few tributes, about John McCain. A common word used to describe him is “warrior,” as in this op-ed at Al Jazeera of all places. If you do a quick Google search with “John McCain” and “warrior” you’ll see what I mean.
I’m a firm believer in the citizen-soldier tradition. Warrior-speak, I believe, is inappropriate to this tradition and to the ideals of a democracy. “Warrior” should not be used loosely as a substitute for “fighter,” nor should it replace citizen-sailor, which is what John McCain was (or should have been).
Yes, John McCain came from a family of admirals. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy. He became a naval aviator. He was shot down and became a prisoner of war. He showed toughness and fortitude and endurance as a POW under torture. But all this doesn’t (or shouldn’t) make him a “warrior.” Rather, he was a U.S. Navy officer, a product of a citizen-sailor tradition.
It’s corrosive to our democracy as well as to our military when we use “warrior” as a term of high praise. Many Americans apparently think “warrior” sounds cool and tough and manly, but there’s a thin line between “warrior” and “warmonger,” and both terms are corrosive to a country that claims it prefers peace to war.
In sum, it says something disturbing about our country and our culture when “warrior” has become the go-to term of ultimate praise. By anointing McCain as a “warrior,” we’re not praising him: we’re wounding our country.
If there’s one area of bipartisan agreement today, it’s politicians’ professed love of the U.S. military. Consider George W. Bush. He said the U.S. military is the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known. Consider Barack Obama. He said that same military is the finest fighting force the world has ever known. Strong praise, indeed.
Today’s politicians are not to be outdone. This past weekend at Camp David, Paul Ryan praised the military for keeping America safe. Mike Pence noted the military remains “the strongest in the world,” yet paradoxically he said it needs rebuilding. He promised even more “investment” in the military so that it would become “even stronger still.”
Apparently, no matter how strong and superior the U.S. military is, it must be made yet stronger and yet more superior. All in an effort to “keep us safe,” to cite Paul Ryan’s words. Small wonder that the Pentagon’s budget is soaring above $700 billion.
It didn’t use to be this way. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, formerly a five-star general and a man who knew the military intimately, warned us in 1961 of the anti-democratic nature of the military-industrial complex. James Madison, one of America’s founders, warned us in the 18th century of the perils of endless war and how armies drive authoritarian tendencies and contribute to financial debt and national ruin.
Ike knew that national safety shouldn’t be equated with military prowess; quite the reverse, as he warned us against the unchecked power of a burgeoning military-industrial-Congressional complex. Madison knew that armies weren’t “investments”; rather, they were, in historical terms, positive dangers to liberty.
But for America’s politicians today, the idea of national safety has become weaponized as well as militarized. In their minds personal liberty and national democracy, paradoxically, are best represented by an authoritarian and hierarchical military, one possessing vast power, whether measured by its resources across the globe or its reach within American society.
Our politicians find it easy to be uncritical cheerleaders of the U.S. military. They may even think they’re doing a service by issuing blank checks of support. But Ike and Madison would disagree, and so too would anyone with knowledge of the perils of military adulation.
Give the hobgoblin with the bad comb-over his due: He knows how to divide and distract, to divert attention by casting aspersions on others.
The latest Trump tweet that showcased this tactic came today at the G-20 Summit when Trump tweeted the following:
“Everyone here is talking about why John Podesta refused to give the DNC server to the FBI and the CIA. Disgraceful!”
The Washington Post analyzes why this tweet is so wrongheaded and misleading, but a factual analysis won’t matter to Trump’s legion of followers.
There’s a method to Trump’s madness. By continuing to vilify Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and smaller fish like John Podesta, he’s distracting Americans from his own problems with the FBI. He’s saying the real crooks, the true inept leaders, are Democrats. Somehow, he thinks this “look over there!” misdirection ploy will work. And he may well be right. Trump learned a lot from “reality” TV and wrestling shows, including how to entertain people even as he exploits them.
When I think about Trump, I come back to one of my father’s favorite sayings: the empty barrel makes the most noise. Trump always makes a lot of noise, but there’s nothing there. There’s no substance. The noise, because it’s so loud and annoying, briefly grabs your attention, then it’s gone.
Yet the damage it does isn’t gone. Even as we become accustomed to the thunder of Trump’s tweet storms, we’re slowly losing our hearing. By hearing, I mean our ability to discern truth, or at least to block out the thunderous distraction of big lies.
When the president is a walking (or golf cart-riding), tweeting, fabricating, drum-beating clown, democracy can’t help but suffer.
More and more under Trump, discourse in America is being degraded. But the bigger problem may be that so few Americans seem to care.
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.