War Train, Soundin’ Louder

train
War train, vintage World War II.  Peace train nowhere in sight.

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I look afresh at the many reasons why America’s wars persist — and why the “war train” is soundin’ ever louder across America and indeed much of the world.

Here’s an excerpt; please read the entire article at TomDispatch.

Think of this as the new American exceptionalism. In Washington, war is now the predictable (and even desirable) way of life, while peace is the unpredictable (and unwise) path to follow. In this context, the U.S. must continue to be the most powerful nation in the world by a country mile in all death-dealing realms and its wars must be fought, generation after generation, even when victory is never in sight. And if that isn’t an “exceptional” belief system, what is?

If we’re ever to put an end to our country’s endless twenty-first-century wars, that mindset will have to be changed. But to do that, we would first have to recognize and confront war’s many uses in American life and culture.

War, Its Uses (and Abuses)

A partial list of war’s many uses might go something like this: war is profitable, most notably for America’s vast military-industrial complex; war is sold as being necessary for America’s safety, especially to prevent terrorist attacks; and for many Americans, war is seen as a measure of national fitness and worthiness, a reminder that “freedom isn’t free.” In our politics today, it’s far better to be seen as strong and wrong than meek and right.

As the title of a book by former war reporter Chris Hedges so aptly put it, war is a force that gives us meaning. And let’s face it, a significant part of America’s meaning in this century has involved pride in having the toughest military on the planet, even as trillions of tax dollars went into a misguided attempt to maintain bragging rights to being the world’s sole superpower.

And keep in mind as well that, among other things, never-ending war weakens democracy while strengthening authoritarian tendencies in politics and society. In an age of gaping inequality, using up the country’s resources in such profligate and destructive ways offers a striking exercise in consumption that profits the few at the expense of the many.

In other words, for a select few, war pays dividends in ways that peace doesn’t. In a nutshell, or perhaps an artillery shell, war is anti-democratic, anti-progressive, anti-intellectual, and anti-human. Yet, as we know, history makes heroes out of its participants and celebrates mass murderers like Napoleon as “great captains.”

What the United States needs today is a new strategy of containment — not against communist expansion, as in the Cold War, but against war itself. What’s stopping us from containing war? You might say that, in some sense, we’ve grown addicted to it, which is true enough, but here are five additional reasons for war’s enduring presence in American life:

  • The delusional idea that Americans are, by nature, winners and that our wars are therefore winnable: No American leader wants to be labeled a “loser.” Meanwhile, such dubious conflicts — see: the Afghan War, now in its 18th year, with several more years, or even generations, to go — continue to be treated by the military as if they were indeed winnable, even though they visibly aren’t. No president, Republican or Democrat, not even Donald J. Trump, despite his promises that American soldiers will be coming home from such fiascos, has successfully resisted the Pentagon’s siren call for patience (and for yet more trillions of dollars) in the cause of ultimate victory, however poorly defined, farfetched, or far-off.
  • American society’s almost complete isolation from war’s deadly effects: We’re not being droned (yet). Our cities are not yet lying in ruins (though they’re certainly suffering from a lack of funding, as is our most essential infrastructure, thanks in part to the cost of those overseas wars). It’s nonetheless remarkable how little attention, either in the media or elsewhere, this country’s never-ending war-making gets here.
  • Unnecessary and sweeping secrecy: How can you resist what you essentially don’t know about? Learning its lesson from the Vietnam War, the Pentagon now classifies (in plain speak: covers up) the worst aspects of its disastrous wars. This isn’t because the enemy could exploit such details — the enemy already knows! — but because the American people might be roused to something like anger and action by it. Principled whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning have been imprisoned or otherwise dismissed or, in the case of Edward Snowden, pursued and indicted for sharing honest details about the calamitous Iraq War and America’s invasive and intrusive surveillance state. In the process, a clear message of intimidation has been sent to other would-be truth-tellers.
  • An unrepresentative government: Long ago, of course, Congress ceded to the presidency most of its constitutional powers when it comes to making war. Still, despite recent attempts to end America’s arms-dealing role in the genocidal Saudi war in Yemen (overridden by Donald Trump’s veto power), America’s duly elected representatives generally don’t represent the people when it comes to this country’s disastrous wars. They are, to put it bluntly, largely captives of (and sometimes on leaving politics quite literally go to work for) the military-industrial complex. As long as money is speech (thank you, Supreme Court!), the weapons makers are always likely to be able to shout louder in Congress than you and I ever will.
  • America’s persistent empathy gap. Despite our size, we are a remarkably insular nation and suffer from a serious empathy gap when it comes to understanding foreign cultures and peoples or what we’re actually doing to them. Even our globetrotting troops, when not fighting and killing foreigners in battle, often stay on vast bases, referred to in the military as “Little Americas,” complete with familiar stores, fast food, you name it. Wherever we go, there we are, eating our big burgers, driving our big trucks, wielding our big guns, and dropping our very big bombs. But what those bombs do, whom they hurt or kill, whom they displace from their homes and lives, these are things that Americans turn out to care remarkably little about.

All this puts me sadly in mind of a song popular in my youth, a time when Cat Stevens sang of a “peace train” that was “soundin’ louder” in America. Today, that peace train’s been derailed and replaced by an armed and armored one eternally prepared for perpetual war — and that train is indeed soundin’ louder to the great peril of us all.

Please read the rest of the article here at TomDispatch.com.

Edward Snowden and Turnkey Tyranny

snowden
Edward Snowden

W.J. Astore

Edward Snowden recently talked to Joe Rogan for nearly three hours.  Snowden has a book out (“Permanent Record“) about his life and his decision to become a whistleblower who exposed lies and crimes by the U.S. national security state.  As I watched Snowden’s interview, I jotted down notes and thoughts I had.  (The interview itself has more than seven million views on YouTube and rising, which is great to see.)  The term in my title, “turnkey tyranny,” is taken from the interview.

My intent here is not to summarize Snowden’s entire interview.  I want to focus on some points he made that I found especially revealing, pertinent, and insightful.

Without further ado, here are 12 points I took from this interview:

1.  People who reach the highest levels of government do so by being risk-averse.  Their goal is never to screw-up in a major way.  This mentality breeds cautiousness, mediocrity, and buck-passing.  (I saw the same in my 20 years in the U.S. military.)

2.  The American people are no longer partners of government.  We are subjects.  Our rights are routinely violated even as we become accustomed (or largely oblivious) to a form of turnkey tyranny.

3.  Intelligence agencies in the U.S. used 9/11 to enlarge their power.  They argued that 9/11 happened because there were “too many restrictions” on them.  This led to the PATRIOT Act and unconstitutional global mass surveillance, disguised as the price of being kept “safe” from terrorism.  Simultaneously, America’s 17 intelligence agencies wanted most of all not to be blamed for 9/11.  They wanted to ensure the buck stopped nowhere.  This was a goal they achieved.

4.  Every persuasive lie has a kernel of truth.  Terrorism does exist — that’s the kernel of truth.  Illegal mass surveillance, facilitated by nearly unlimited government power, in the cause of “keeping us safe” is the persuasive lie.

5.  The government uses classification (“Top Secret” and so on) primarily to hide things from the American people, who have no “need to know” in the view of government officials.  Secrecy becomes a cloak for illegality.  Government becomes unaccountable; the people don’t know, therefore we are powerless to rein in government excesses or to prosecute for abuses of power.

6.  Fear is the mind-killer (my expression here, quoting Frank Herbert’s Dune).  Snowden spoke much about the use of fear by the government, using expressions like “they’ll be blood on your hands” and “think of the children.”  Fear is the way to cloud people’s minds.  As Snowden put it, you lose the ability to act because you are afraid.

7.  What is true patriotism?  For Snowden, it’s about a constant effort to do good for the people.  It’s not loyalty to government.  Loyalty, Snowden notes, is only good in the service of something good.

8.  National security and public safety are not synonymous.  In fact, in the name of national security, our rights are being violated.  We are “sweeping up the broken glass of our lost rights” in today’s world of global mass surveillance, Snowden noted.

9.    We live naked before power.  Companies like Facebook and Google, together with the U.S. government, know everything about us; we know little about them.  It’s supposed to be the reverse (at least in a democracy).

10.  “The system is built on lies.”  James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, lies under oath before Congress.  And there are no consequences.  He goes unpunished.

11.  We own less and less of our own data.  Data increasingly belongs to corporations and the government.  It’s become a commodity.  Which means we are the commodity.  We are being exploited and manipulated, we are being sold, and it’s all legal, because the powerful make the policies and the laws, and they are unaccountable to the people.

12.  Don’t wait for a hero to save you.  What matters is heroic decisions.  You are never more than one decision away from making the world a better place.

In 2013, Edward Snowden made a heroic decision to reveal illegal mass surveillance by the U.S. government, among other governmental crimes.  He has made the world a better place, but as he himself knows, the fight has only just begun against turnkey tyranny.

Hillary Clinton to Edward Snowden: Face the Music

Edward Snowden: Face the music -- or perhaps a firing squad
Edward Snowden: Face the music — or perhaps a firing squad

W.J. Astore

A revealing question and answer came in this week’s presidential debate among the Democratic candidates.  They were asked if Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who revealed illegal spying by the NSA and the U.S. government, should be considered a hero or traitor.

Hillary Clinton’s answer was revealing of who she is and what she stands for; here it is in full:

CLINTON: He broke the laws of the United States. He could have been a whistleblower. He could have gotten all of the protections of being a whistleblower. He could have raised all the issues that he has raised. And I think there would have been a positive response to that.

COOPER: Should he do jail time?

ClINTON: In addition — in addition, he stole very important information that has unfortunately fallen into a lot of the wrong hands. So I don’t think he should be brought home without facing the music.

According to Hillary, Snowden is not officially a whistleblower, since he failed to apply for such status within the government. If he had, she suggests he would have been given a fair hearing.  (Right!  Just like the “positive response” Hillary Clinton’s State Department gave Peter Van Buren, who for his honesty about Iraq reconstruction was outcast and hounded into retirement.) She also suggests that Snowden’s revelations have “fallen into a lot of the wrong hands,” by which I think she means not foreign terrorists but the American people — what she terms “everyday” people to distinguish them from people like her.

But, finally, this sentence is the killer: I don’t think he should be brought home without facing the music.

Facing the music: Do you know what that potentially means for Edward Snowden?  Accused of treason (his information having fallen into all those “wrong hands“), he would face the possibility of execution by the U.S. government.  Facing the music in this case may mean facing a firing squad.  At the very least, we’re talking about a LONG jail sentence, doubtless in a maximum security federal penitentiary.

By comparison to Hillary, the other candidates showed measures of compassion.  Lincoln Chaffee said he wanted to bring Snowden home: that he deserved praise for revealing illegal activities by the U.S. government.  Martin O’Malley essentially agreed with Clinton but without the ominous warning about the need to face the music.  Bernie Sanders applauded Snowden for his role in educating the people about their dishonest and abusive government; he said that important service should be taken into account if and when Snowden returns for trial.  Jim Webb punted the question to “the legal system” but he also highlighted the dangers of uncontrolled surveillance and how such power can be used for undemocratic purposes: “We’ve got a vast data bank of information that is ripe for people with bad intentions to be able to use,” Webb said.  Of course, we truly wouldn’t know the full extent of this without the revelations provided by Snowden.

Following on from what Webb said, the conclusion is obvious: Edward Snowden is a hero.  He should be brought back to the United States and praised for his courage in revealing how our government has spied illegally, not only on the American people but on much of the world.  Untrammeled spying is not making us safer; it’s people like Snowden, those who still have integrity and who believe in the ideals of democracy, who are making us safer.

On the question of Snowden, hero or traitor, all the candidates disappointed. But in calling for Snowden to face the music, Hillary Clinton’s answer represented the deepest bow to the National Security State.

If I were Snowden, I wouldn’t plan on returning to the USA if Clinton is elected president.

Petraeus and Snowden: Both Leakers of Classified Material, Same Punishment?

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden

W.J. Astore

Two news items this morning caught my eye.  The first involves Edward Snowden, the security contractor who revealed massive (and ongoing) spying by the National Security Agency (NSA), much of it illegal.  Snowden says he will consider returning to the United States if he is given a fair trial (he is currently in Russia, where he’s been granted asylum and a residency permit for three years).

Watching the Citizenfour documentary (which I recommend highly), it’s apparent that Snowden revealed the sweeping extent of the NSA’s spying not out of malice, not for money, and not out of disloyalty, but rather because he wanted to serve the people by shedding light on the dangerous activities of powerful governmental agencies.  Snowden, in short, was motivated by patriotism. He saw how power was corrupting governmental agencies like the NSA, he recognized the dangers of that power to democracy, and he acted to warn the people of the possibility of this power ending in tyranny.

If he returns to the USA, how should he be punished?  May I suggest that he receive the same penalty as General David Petraeus, who also leaked highly classified information?  That penalty would be two years’ probation and a $40,000 fine.

Actually, that penalty wouldn’t be fair to Snowden, since Petraeus’s motivation for leaking classified information was personal. According to the New York Times, Petraeus shared his “black book” notes, much of the content highly classified, freely to Paula Broadwell, his lover and biographer.  He apparently did so in order that she could write a more glowing account of his life.  It’s also possible that this was part of the seduction process between the two: the sharing of those “sexy,” highly classified notes in exchange for further intimacies exchanged between the sheets (or under the desk).

Irony of ironies: The "ascetic" Petraeus bonded with Broadwell as they ran six-minute miles
Petraeus and Broadwell: “All In”

So, Paula Broadwell gained access to “classified notes about official meetings, war strategy, intelligence capabilities and the names of covert officers.”  Later, Petraeus lied to the FBI about the sharing of those notes.  And for these transgressions, he remains at liberty, with a lucrative deal at a private equity firm, teaching at Harvard University and walking the halls of power as an ascetic “hero” of the Surge in Iraq (2007).

Meanwhile, Snowden, who has been very careful not to compromise covert assets, remains in exile, vilified by many as a traitor to his country.

That’s the American moment for you.  A general with powerful friends gets a slap on the wrist for leaking highly classified material to his mistress and lying about it to the FBI, and a young patriot who acts to shed light on the growing power of governmental agencies to spy on the people and to violate their liberties is hounded into exile and denounced as a traitor.

And justice for all, America?

Update (3/5/15): 

Glenn Greenwald notes that Snowden’s desire to return to the U.S. is nothing new (and not news). The main obstacle is that U.S. law prohibits Snowden from using the defense that the documents/information he leaked should never have been classified to begin with. In other words, in a democracy, government should be transparent and accountable to the people, rather than being shrouded in secrecy and unaccountable to the people.  Imagine that!

Greenwald’s article, of course, changes nothing that I wrote above about the two-track justice system in the U.S. If only Snowden had been a military general and ex-chief of the CIA before he became a whistleblower! But, sadly, he was just a young man inspired by idealism and fired up about the dangers of the total surveillance state.

Idealism driven by concerns about the overweening powers of the national security state: We can’t have that in America.  Hang Snowden! Opportunism and deceit by a powerful man who ran a key component of that state (the CIA) and who should definitely have known better about violating security and lying to investigators? Well, that’s OK, “hero” Petraeus. Pay a token fine — and here’s your “Get out of jail free” card.

https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2015/03/04/snowden-wants-come-home-stories-case-study-media-deceit/

George Bernard Shaw’s Warning from History

George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw

 

In the preface (dated 1907) to the first German edition of The Perfect Wagnerite, George Bernard Shaw issued a warning about trends that he saw in German character and culture.  What struck me upon reading them was not just their insight into the Second Reich (1871-1918) and their prescience about the Third Reich to come (1933-45), but their insight into certain aspects of American character and culture today.

The worst fault of the “typical modern German,” Shaw wrote in 1907, “is that he cannot see that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.  Being convinced that duty, industry, education, loyalty, patriotism and respectability are good things (and I am magnanimous enough to admit that they are not altogether bad things when taken in strict moderation at the right time and in the right place), he indulges in them on all occasions shamelessly and excessivelyHe commits hideous crimes when crime is presented to him as part of his duty; his craze for work is more ruinous than the craze for drink …”

Yes, a craze for doing one’s duty in the name of a state-defined and state-glorifying patriotism can be taken too far, as events were to show.  Shaw went on to say that he struggled himself with the “mania” of wanting to be seen as “loyal and patriotic, to be respectable and well-spoken of.”  But the typical German abandoned himself to this mania, or so Shaw argued.

The result, Shaw warned, “may end in starvation, crushing taxation, suppression of all freedom to try new social experiments and reform obsolete institutions, in snobbery, jobbery, idolatry, and an omnipresent tyranny in which his doctor and his schoolmaster, his lawyer and his priest, coerce him worse than any official or drill sergeant: no matter: it is respectable, says the German, therefore it must be good, and cannot be carried too far; and everybody who rebels against it must be a rascal.”

That is a remarkable line: the suppression of all freedom to try new social experiments and reform obsolete institutions.  It’s exactly how the Nazis couched their radical and murderous tyranny – as an experiment in greater freedom (for the Aryan elite, naturally, not for “inferiors”).  And most “respectable” Germans went along with this; they saluted the Leader smartly and obeyed.  Or they dared not outwardly to disobey, which had the same effect.

It’s easy to slough off Shaw’s words as a period piece, words that applied to certain Germans at a certain point in history.  But there’s more here than that.  Shaw is warning us that unthinking allegiance to state-defined duty, loyalty, patriotism, all in the name of “respectability” as defined and judged by supposedly sober superiors, is open to exploitation as well as perversion by authoritarian interests.

Subsequent German history proved Shaw to be right.  Tragically so.

But what about the typical modern American?  Are we immune from this exaltation of the self in the service of state interests?  An exaltation that takes its meaning from toil and conformity?  Are we as unwilling as most Germans were to challenge authority before it becomes corrupt and authoritarian?

Consider these words of Tom Engelhardt, writing at Tomdispatch.com about the current state of affairs in Washington D.C. and around the world, as our government hunts the dissident Edward Snowden:

“It’s eerie that some aspects of the totalitarian governments that went down for the count in the twentieth century are now being recreated in those shadows.  There, an increasingly ‘totalistic’ if not yet totalitarian beast, its hour come round at last, is slouching toward Washington to be born, while those who cared to shine a little light on the birth process are in jail or being hounded across this planet.”

Yes, the echoes are eerie.  Part of the answer is to listen to Shaw.  Better to act as a “rascal” in pursuit of a more equitable and ethical society than to crave respectability as defined by the state.  The rascal challenges state authority.  The dutiful man?  As Shaw argues, the latter may commit hideous crimes simply because some authority figure told him to do so.

In these days of increasing governmental authority and state intrusion into individual privacy, it may well be wise for us to tap our inner rascals.

W.J. Astore