Perhaps America, Home of the Brave, Simply Fears Too Much
In 1961, in his famous farewell address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned America about the military-industrial complex. He said it potentially posed a grave threat to liberty and democracy, noting that only an alert and knowledgable citizenry could keep its “disastrous rise” in check. In an earlier draft of his speech, Ike had included Congress as part of the complex, but he removed it from the final draft in the interest of parting with Congress on good terms.
Ike, of course, knew the military and loved it and had worked with industry as well. He knew of what he spoke. Every year when he was president, the military wanted more. So did the weapons manufacturers. And Congress was willing to give them more in the name of jobs and for that nebulous cause of national security. Ike did a decent job as president containing the ambitions of the military and the greed of America’s merchants of death. His speech in 1961 was his parting shot across the bow of the complex and a warning that’s largely been forgotten by Americans then and now.
Ike, I think, would be dismayed but not shocked at how the military-industrial complex or MIC has expanded its “misplaced” power over the last sixty years. The MIC is now the MICIMATT, or the military industrial congressional intelligence media academia think tank complex, employing millions of Americans in pursuit of full-spectrum dominance across the globe. In fact, America has proudly become a warrior nation (the citizen-soldier ideal is long dead) with 750 bases around the world and military budgets that routinely touch or exceed a trillion dollars. Permanent war is the new normal in America, justified as always in terms of making the world safe for democracy.
In the spirit of Ike, we should recognize the military or industry or Congress alone is not the enemy. It’s the conjunction of an immense military establishment with powerful industrial interests, and the enabling of the same by Congress, that needs to be addressed and reformed.
Yet, given its enormity and its power, the complex is remarkably resistant to change, let alone to being shrunk and weakened. It will take enormous national will, working against powerful propaganda forces that will paint every Pentagon budget reduction, large or small, as unsafe if not un-American.
So why did Ike fail? Or why did we fail Ike? He warned us in 1961. Why have we as “an alert and knowledgable citizenry” failed to guard against the acquisition of “disastrous” power by the MIC?
For the truth is America has become an Orwellian country where war is peace. War (or preparations for war) has been continuous since Ike’s speech. Our government wages war in the alleged cause of peace. It acts imperially in the name of democracy, and we collectively accept or tolerate the tale that Big Brother tells us.
Short of a revolution, what America needs is radical honesty. An awakening. If we truly want as a people to pursue peace, we can’t do that by constantly waging war. If we truly favor democracy, we can’t pursue one through militarism and imperialism.
What kind of nation — what kind of people — do we want to be? Judging by our federal discretionary budget and by the general affection for all things military in our nation, perhaps we want to be a bellicose empire. I’m not saying all Americans want this; even those who do probably wouldn’t state it so baldly. But maybe this is just who we are, a nation and a people convinced that it’s always at risk, and thus one that’s forever fearful, hyper-vigilant, coiled to strike and ready to rumble.
“Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.” So says Roy Batty, the doomed replicant in Blade Runner, played so brilliantly by Rutger Hauer. There’s a lesson here for all of us. The first step to heeding Ike’s warning, as well as his marching orders to us, is to control our collective fear. To stop listening to threat inflation about China or Russia or Iran or terrorism or whatever. Fear is the mind-killer, Frank Herbert noted in Dune, thus to think freely requires us to master that which kills thought. Fear, Master Po said in Kung Fu, is the only darkness.
We will only begin to downsize the military-industrial complex and end our pursuit of militarism when we acknowledge our fear, stop being slaves to it, and head away from the darkness.
America is the home of the brave, so we say. Isn’t it time we acted like it?
There’s way too much fear mongering in America, which helps to drive the paranoid nature of U.S. foreign and domestic policy. This is the subject of my latest article at TomDispatch.com, which I’ve included below in its entirety. If you don’t read TomDispatch, I urge you to subscribe (top right corner on the home page). Tom Engelhardt has been running the site for 20 years (I’ve been writing for it for 15 of them), and I’ve found the content to be stimulating and thought-provoking. Many thanks for your continued interest in “Bracing Views” as well, which, I joke to Tom, is a little like a baby TomDispatch.
Dystopia, Not Democracy
I have a brother with chronic schizophrenia. He had his first severe catatonic episode when he was 16 years old and I was 10. Later, he suffered from auditory hallucinations and heard voices saying nasty things to him. I remember my father reassuring him that the voices weren’t real and asking him whether he could ignore them. Sadly, it’s not that simple.
That conversation between my father and brother has been on my mind, as I’ve been experiencing America’s increasingly divided, almost schizoid, version of social discourse. It’s as if this country were suffering from some set of collective auditory hallucinations whose lead feature was nastiness.
Of course, America continues to face actual threats to its security and domestic tranquility. Here at home that would include regular mass shootings; controversial decisions by an openly partisan Supreme Court; the Capitol riot that the House January 6th select committee has repeatedly reminded us about; and growing uncertainty when it comes to what, if anything, still unifies these once United States. All this has Americans increasingly vexed and stressed.
Meanwhile, internationally, wars and rumors of war continue to be a constant plague, made worse by the exaggeration of threats to national security. History teaches us that such threats have sometimes not just been inflated but created ex nihilo. Those would, for instance, include the non-existent Gulf of Tonkin attack cited as the justification for a major military escalation of the war in Vietnam in 1965 or those non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq used to justify the 2003 U.S. invasion of that country.
All this and more is combining to create a paranoid and increasingly violent country, an America deeply fearful and perpetually thinking about warring on other peoples as well as on itself.
My brother’s doctors treated him as best they could with various drugs and electroshock therapy. Crude as that treatment regimen was then (and remains today), it did help him cope. But what if his doctors, instead of trying to reduce his symptoms, had conspired to amplify them? Indeed, what if they had told him that he should listen to those voices and so aggravate his fears? What if they had advised him that sanity meant arming himself against those very voices? Wouldn’t we, then or now, have said that they were guilty of the worst form of medical malpractice?
And isn’t that, by analogy, true of America’s leaders in these years, as they’ve driven this society to be ever less trusting and more fearful in the name of protecting and advancing their wealth, power, and security?
Fear Is the Mind-Killer
If you’re plugged into the mental matrix that’s America in 2022, you’re constantly exposed to fear. Fear, as Frank Herbert wrote in Dune, is the mind-killer. The voices around us encourage it. Fear your MAGA-hat-wearing neighbor with his steroidal truck and his sizeable collection of guns as he supposedly plots a coup against America. Alternately, fear your “libtard” neighbor with her rainbow peace flag as she allegedly plots to confiscate your guns and brainwash your kids. Small wonder that more than 37 million Americans take antidepressants, roughly one in nine of us, or that, in 2016, this country accounted for 80% of the global market for opioid prescriptions.
A climate of fear has led to 43 million new guns being purchased by Americans in 2020 and 2021 in a land singularly awash in more than 400 million firearms, including more than 20 million assault rifles. A climate of fear has led to police forces being heavily militarized and fully funded rather than “defunded” (which actually would mean a bit less money going to the police and a bit more to non-violent options like counseling and mental-health services). A climate of fear has led Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives who can agree on little else to vote almost unanimously to fork over $840 billion to the Pentagon in Fiscal Year 2023 for yet more wars and murderous weaponry. (Of course, the true budget for what is still coyly called “national defense” will soar well above a trillion dollars then, as it often has since 9/11/2001 and the announcement of a “global war on terror.”)
The idea that enemies are everywhere is, of course, useful if you’re seeking to create a heavily armed and militarized form of insanity.
It’s summer and these days it just couldn’t be hotter, so perhaps you’ll allow me to riff briefly about a scene I’ve never forgotten from The Big Red One, a war film I saw in 1980. It involved a World War II firefight between American and German troops in a Belgian insane asylum during which one of the mental patients picks up a submachine gun and starts blasting away, shouting, “I am one of you. I am sane!” In 2022, sign him up and give him a battlefield commission.
Where fear is omnipresent and violence becomes routinized and normalized, what you end up with is dystopia, not democracy.
We Must Not Be Friends but Enemies
At this point, consider us to be in a distinctly upside-down world. Reverse Abraham Lincoln’s moving plea to Southern secessionists in his first inaugural address in 1861 — “We must not be enemies but friends. We must not be enemies” — and you’ve summed up all too well our domestic and foreign policy today. No, we’re neither in a civil war nor a world war yet, but America’s national (in)security state does continue to insist that virtually every rival to our imperial being must be transformed into an enemy, whether it’s Russia, China, or much of the Middle East. Enemies are everywhere and must be feared, or so we’re repetitiously told anyway.
I remember well the time in 1991-1992 when the Soviet Union collapsed and America emerged as the sole victorious superpower of the Cold War. I was a captain then, teaching history at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Those were also the years when, even without the Soviet Union, the militarization of this society somehow never seemed to end. Not long after, in launching a conflict against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, this country officially kicked ass in the Middle East and President George H.W. Bush assured Americans that, by going to war again, we had also kicked our “Vietnam Syndrome” once and for all. Little did we guess then that two deeply destructive and wasteful quagmire wars, entirely unnecessary for our national defense, awaited us in Afghanistan and Iraq in the century to come.
Never has a country squandered victory — and a genuinely global victory at that! — so completely as ours has over the last 30 years. And yet there are few in power who consider altering the fearful course we’re still on.
A significant culprit here is the military-industrial-congressional complex that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned Americans about in his farewell address in 1961. But there’s more to it than that. The United States has, it seems, always reveled in violence, possibly as an antidote to being consumed by fear. Yet the intensity of both violence and fear seems to be soaring. Yes, our leaders clearly exaggerated the Soviet threat during the Cold War, but at least there was indeed a threat. Vladimir Putin’s Russia isn’t close to being in the same league, yet they’ve treated his war with Ukraine as if it were an attack on California or Texas. (That and the Pentagon budget may be the only things the two parties can mostly agree on.)
Recall that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was in horrible shape, a toothless, clawless bear, suffering in its cage. Instead of trying to help, our leaders decided to mistreat it further. To shrink its cage by expanding NATO. To torment it through various forms of economic exploitation and financial appropriation. “Russia Is Finished” declared the cover article of the Atlantic Monthly in May 2001, and no one in America seemed faintly concerned. Mercy and compassion were in short supply as all seemed right with the “sole superpower” of Planet Earth.
Now the Russian Bear is back — more menacing than ever, we’re told. Marked as “finished” two decades ago, that country is supposedly on the march again, not just in its invasion of Ukraine but in President Vladimir Putin’s alleged quest for a new Russian empire. Instead of Peter the Great, we now have Putin the Great glowering at Europe — unless, that is, America stands firm and fights bravely to the last Ukrainian.
Add to that ever-fiercer warnings about a resurgent China that echo the racist “Yellow Peril” tropes of more than a century ago. Why, for example, must President Joe Biden speak of China as a competitor and threat rather than as a trade partner and potential ally? Even anti-communist zealot Richard Nixon went to China during his presidency and made nice with Chairman Mao, if only to complicate matters for the Soviet Union.
If imperial America were willing to share the world on roughly equal terms, Russia and China could be “near-peer” friends instead of, in the Pentagon phrase of the moment, “near-peer adversaries.” Perhaps they could even be allies of a kind, rather than rivals always on the cusp of what might potentially become a world-ending war. But the voices that seek access to our heads prefer to whisper sneakily of enemies rather than calmly of potential allies in creating a better planet.
And yet, guess what, whether anyone in Washington admits it or not: we’re already rather friendly with (as well as heavily dependent on) China. Here are just two recent examples from my own mundane life. I ordered a fan — it’s hot as I type these words in my decidedly unairconditioned office — from AAFES, a department store of sorts that serves members of the military, in service or retired, and their families. It came a few days later at an affordable price. As I put it together, I saw the label: “Made in China.” Thank you for the cooling breeze, Xi Jinping!
Then I decided to order a Henley shirt from Jockey, a name with a thoroughly American pedigree. You guessed it! That shirt was plainly marked “Made in China.” (Jockey, to its credit, does have a “Made in America” collection and I got two white cotton t-shirts from it.) You get my point: the American consumer would be lost without China, the present workhouse for the world.
You’d think a war, or even a new Cold War, with America’s number-one provider of stuff of every sort would be dumb, but no one is going to lose any bets by underestimating how dumb Americans can be. Otherwise, how can you explain Donald Trump? And not just his presidency either. What about his “Trump steaks,” “Trump university,” even “Trump vodka”? After all, who could be relied upon to know more about the quality of vodka than a man who refuses to drink it?
Learning from Charlie Brown
Returning to fears and psychiatric help, one of my favorite scenes is from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” In that classic 1965 cartoon holiday special, Lucy ostensibly tries to help Charlie with his seasonal depression by labeling what ails him. The wannabe shrink goes through a short list of phobias until she lands on “pantophobia,” which she defines as “the fear of everything.” Charlie Brown shouts, “That’s it!”
Deep down, he knows perfectly well that he isn’t afraid of everything. What he doesn’t know, however, and what that cartoon is eager to show us, is how he can snap out of his mental funk. All that he needs is a little love, a little hands-on kindness from the other children.
America writ large today is, to my mind, a little like Charlie Brown — down in the dumps, bedraggled, having lost a clear sense of what life in our country should be all about. We need to come together and share a measure of compassion and love. Except our Lucys aren’t trying to lend a hand at the “psychiatric help” stand. They’re trying to persuade us that pantophobia, the fear of everything, is normal, even laudable. Their voices keep telling us to fear — and fear some more.
It’s not easy, America, to tune those voices out. My brother could tell you that. At times, he needed an asylum to escape them. What he needed most, though, was love or at least some good will and understanding from his fellow humans. What he didn’t need was more fear and neither do we. We — most of us anyway — still believe ourselves to be the “sane” ones. So why do we continue to tolerate leaders, institutions, and whole political parties intent on eroding our sanity and exploiting our fears in service of their own power and perks?
Remember that mental patient in The Big Red One, who picks up a gun and starts blasting people while crying that he’s “sane”? We’ll know we’re on the path to sanity when we finally master our fear, put down our guns, and stop eternally preparing to blast people at home and abroad.
The Republican National Convention is over. Its main message: be afraid. Be very afraid. Of socialism. Of people coming to take your guns. Of open borders. Of anarchy in the street. Of “cancel culture.” And so on.
Its ancillary message: the Democrats are not a rival party of patriotic Americans. They are dangerous. Dishonest. Scheming. And un-American.
In last night’s acceptance speech, Trump was his usual huckster and grifter self. Perhaps my favorite claim was when Trump said he’d done more to help black people than any other president, Abraham Lincoln excepted. There’s little doubt that in his own mind Trump believes he’s done more than Lincoln “for the black.”
What can I say that hasn’t already been said about the alternate (un)reality that Trump sells to his acolytes? It’s total BS, it’s fantasy, it’s often hateful or spiteful, but it resonates with certain people, even as it disgusts others.
Trump, among many other things, is a sower of discord. A manufacturer of outrage based on lies and misinformation. But he needs an audience of willing followers, and there are plenty of those in America.
In life, Trump has failed at so many things. I’d argue he has failed miserably as a president, dividing the country instead of uniting it, effectively feeding the rich while starving the poor. Yet the man has captured an entire political party and the fervid support of roughly one-third of those Americans most likely to vote in November.
He has shown us a face of America we’d prefer not to see, a face defined by appetites and grievances and prejudices actuated by violence and fear and lies. But I’d go further. By fomenting violence and fear and lies, Trump has acted not like a true mirror but a funhouse one. He has distorted America. He has made it more grotesque. He has twisted it and contorted it and made it more like him.
In short, he has made his mark on the face of America. And that mark will be a very difficult one to erase.
President Trump claims the USA is being invaded. “Masses of illegal aliens” are going to “overrun” America. “Giant” caravans. Bad people from Central America. Fear them!
Isn’t it amazing that a nation of over 300 million people — which claims to have “the world’s finest fighting force” in all of history — fears an “invasion” by a few thousand desperate people, mainly women and children, who most likely would be happy cleaning toilets and doing other jobs that most Americans believe are beneath them?
This election cycle seems like a gloss on the “The Empire Strikes Back,” with the Dark Side of the Force triumphing on the Republican side. As Yoda the Jedi Master put it, “anger, fear, aggression.” They are “quicker, easier, more seductive” than the good side.
Trump and his minions know this. They know what stirs up his base and drives them to the polls to vote.
Trump is more opportunistic grifter than evil Sith Lord, but he’s stirring up anger, fear, aggression among voters to sustain his power.
Is the Dark Side stronger? We’ll soon see.
Update (11/4/18): A U.S. military report suggests that most of the several thousand people currently in the caravan in Mexico are unlikely to reach the U.S. border. To face down the roughly one thousand people who are likely to reach the border and apply legally for asylum, Trump is deploying roughly 15,000 troops while threatening that rock-throwers will be met by Army bullets.
This isn’t tough-talking; it’s irresponsible, it’s inflammatory, it’s even bat-shit crazy. Will bat-shit crazy work for Trump? Stay tuned: same bat-time, same bat-channel.
As a kid, I was a big admirer of Israel.* I kept a scrapbook on the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Back then, Israel was America’s plucky ally, David against Goliath, helping to keep the Soviet bear at bay, or so it seemed to me.
Through a kid’s eyes, Israel in 1973 was an island seemingly surrounded by a sea of well-armed enemies: Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia. Outnumbered and outgunned. And now look at today’s reality: Egypt and Iraq have been neutralized. Syria is devastated. Jordan is wisely (sort of) neutral. The Saudis are a quasi-ally. Outside of the more-or-less manageable threat of terrorism (Hamas and Hezbollah), Israel’s chief enemy today appears to be itself.
What I mean by that is this: Israel, which over the last 70 years has fought several wars for its survival, is now a regional superpower. Yet the mindset of David versus Goliath persists, even though Goliath is hobbled and defeated. Meanwhile, as Israel combats terrorism and the legacies of West Bank occupation and isolation of the Gaza Strip, the government prosecutes policies that are considered illiberal and dangerous by many Jewish critics within Israel itself.
A similar David-Goliath mindset exists in the USA, but with far less cause. Bizarrely, the world’s military superpower envisions itself as being surrounded by enemies. Its response is something like Israel’s, as if the USA is Israel writ large. Both countries seek total military dominance over their perceived enemies and rivals; both are led by strong men dogged by claims of corruption; both glorify their militaries; both appear to be spoiling for war with Iran.
Interestingly, both are also obsessed with demographic “enemies within”: many Israelis fear growing Arab/Muslim influence within; many Americans fear minorities will soon constitute the majority (estimates say non-whites will outnumber whites in the year 2045, but some Americans – like Laura Ingraham on Fox News – feel it’s already happened). The result: the ruling administrations of both countries have doubled down on security and identity politics. Israel has made Arabs second-class citizens, a form of apartheid; Trump & Co. has vilified immigrants (especially Mexicans) as rapists and murderers. Both are building walls to keep the “enemy” without. Both see massive military spending (and nuclear weapons) as the ultimate guarantors of peace.
Israel is little Prussia; the USA is big Prussia. And like Prussia (and Germany) of the past, they pose as the aggrieved party, surrounded by enemies, hemmed in and oppressed. It’s never wrong to be strong – that’s their guiding motto. And by strength they mean hardness: military strength, police strength, the strength of superior weapons technology, embraced by leaders willing to kill or torture or imprison others in the name of preserving a “democratic” way of life.
It’s a mindset conducive to authoritarianism, to militarism, to nationalism, even to kleptocracy disguised as essential spending on national security. At its root is fear, which generates a “no compromise” attitude toward the Other (whether Palestinian “terrorists” or immigrant “killers” and “animals”). As the Palestinian activist Bassam Aramin put it in an interview in The Sun (October 2016):
“I think our main enemy is the Israelis’ fear. It’s part of their consciousness. When they talk about security, the Holocaust is always in the background. If I throw a stone at an armored tank, they interpret it as the beginning of a new Holocaust.”
Fear is the mind-killer. It enables perpetual warfare and a police state – and lots of profit and power to those who facilitate the same.
The original Prussia became consumed by militarism and nationalism and collapsed after two devastating world wars. What will happen to today’s Big and Little Prussia? Perhaps a war against Iran, timed to coincide with the 2020 presidential campaign season in the USA? Such an unnecessary and likely disastrous war can’t be ruled out.
Consider the dynamic between the current leaders of the USA and Israel, each egging the other one on to be tougher, less compromising, more Prussian. A pacific future is not in the cards for these military “superpowers.” Not when they’re so busy emulating Prussia.
*Why are Americans, generally speaking, supporters and admirers of Israel? So much so that politicians ostentatiously wear co-joined US/Israel flag lapel pins? For several reasons:
1. The US media is generally pro-Israel. Meanwhile, the Arab world is often synonymous with terrorism in our media.
2. Israelis seem more like Americans. What I mean is this: Israeli spokespeople wear western dress and speak English with a faint accent. Until recently, Arab spokespeople on TV looked and dressed “foreign” and spoke English with a heavier accent.
3. The power of pro-Israeli political lobbies such as AIPAC and fear among politicians that criticism of Israel will be construed (and demonized) as anti-Semitism.
4. The Holocaust.
5. The Evangelical Context: I remember listening to a talk show on the radio, soon after the Yom Kippur War, in the mid-1970s. The speaker predicted the Second Coming was near. That got my attention! Why was that? Because, this person said, Israel had gained control over Jerusalem in apparent fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. Fast forward forty years to today and you hear basically the same evangelical predictions about the Second Coming of Christ being imminent as Israel expands its hegemony over the “holy land” in Palestine.
One cannot underrate the importance of (selective) Biblical prophecy as advanced by fundamentalist Christians nestled within today’s Republican Party. These evangelicals couldn’t care less about Trump’s sins and transgressions. Their eyes are on the prize: Armageddon and Christ’s return, which they link to Israel’s domination of the region – which will lead to more wars, a brutal future seen as inevitable, even desirable.
A curious feature of America’s wars is their lack of thematic coherence. Lacking a clear beginning (other than the 9/11 attacks), they also lack a clear end point. It’s all middle – repetition without meaning, action without progress, like a bad novel that introduces lots of characters but that never goes anywhere. Look at the rolling cast of characters in charge of America’s wars in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Other than generals who disgraced themselves in ways unrelated to combat performance (David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal), their names are unmemorable.
The American people have largely cast aside the “bad novel” of America’s wars. They find it boring, repetitive, inconsequential (at least to them). But that doesn’t mean people aren’t paying for it, each and every day.
In the absence of Congressional declarations, America’s wars today are not being waged in the name of the people. Cowed by the Executive branch and coerced by money, a spineless Congress willingly sidelines itself. In turn the Executive branch keeps the American people isolated from war even as it misleads them with lies and half-truths.
And thus the American people refuse to take ownership of these wars. And who can blame them, since these wars aren’t being fought in their name or for their interests. America’s wars are the preserve of the commander-in-chief and his various “experts” in and out of uniform, men like retired general and current Secretary of Defense James Mattis, John Bolton, the new National Security Advisor, and Mike Pompeo, the CIA chief who now leads the State Department. Unconcerned with the will and concerns of the people, these men favor aggressive stances and support U.S. military interventions around the globe.
What’s the solution to America’s “bad novel”? Ignoring or disowning it only empowers its authors and their predilection for waging war, however falsely, in our name. Instead, we have to overcome America’s ethos of violence and its climate of fear. Campaign finance reform is vital if we want to suppress the influence of war profiteers. Cutting the Pentagon budget by at least 20% is essential as well. Finally, we need to educate ourselves about war, and to insist that wars are fought only when authorized by Congress, and only as a last resort instead of the first.
If we don’t take these steps, America will be forever stuck reading a bad novel with a one-word title: War.
Who are we supposed to hate today? The Russians for allegedly throwing the presidential election? The Chinese for allegedly stealing our jobs? The North Koreans for allegedly planning our nuclear destruction? The Iranians for allegedly working to acquire nuclear weapons? The “axis of evil” for being, well, evil?
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously told Americans that the only thing they had to fear is fear itself. However, recent American presidents have encouraged us to fear everything. Let’s not forget the stoking of fear by people like Condoleezza Rice and her image of a smoking gun morphing into a nuclear mushroom cloud. That image helped to propel America into a disastrous war in Iraq in 2003 that festers still.
One of the most powerful scenes I’ve seen in any movie came in the adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984. The film version begins with the “two minutes of hate” directed against various (imagined) enemies. Check it out. Doubleplusgood!
Especially disturbing is the rant against Goldstein, the enemy within. Here I think of Donald Trump claiming that the Democrats are anti-military for not rubberstamping his budget, a dishonest as well as ridiculous charge, since both parties support high military spending. Indeed, high Pentagon spending is the one bipartisan area of agreement in Congress.
This is among the biggest problems in America today: the stoking of hate against the enemy within, e.g. “illegal” immigrants (rapists, gang members, killers, according to our president), Democrats who allegedly don’t support our military, rival politicians who should be “locked up,” protesters who should be punched and kicked and otherwise silenced, high school students who are dismissed as phonies and professional actors, and on and on.
Irrational fear is nothing new to America, of course. Consider the fear of communism that produced red scares after World Wars I and II. Consider how fears of the spread of communism led to criminal intervention in Southeast Asia and the death of millions of people there. Massive bombing, free-fire artillery zones, the profligate use of defoliants like Agent Orange, the prolongation of war without any regard for the suffering of peoples in SE Asia: that behavior constituted a crime of murderous intensity that was in part driven by hatred and fear.
And when hatred and fear are linked to tribalism and a xenophobic form of patriotism, murderous war becomes almost a certainty. When the zealots of hate are screaming for blood, it’s very hard to hear appeals for peace based on compassion and reason.
Anger, fear, aggression: that way leads to the dark side, as Yoda, that Jedi master, warned us. Hate too, Yoda says, must be resisted, lest one be consumed by it. Sure, he’s just an imaginary character in the “Star Wars” universe, but that doesn’t negate the truth of his message.
God is love, the Christian religion says. Why then are we so open to hate and fear?
Over at Foreign Policy, there’s a good article on how the Pentagon gets so much money so easily. Basically, the Pentagon complains about lack of “readiness” for war, and Congress caves. But as the article’s author, Gordon Adams, notes, most of the boost in spending goes not to training and maintenance and other readiness issues but to expensive new weaponry:
But the big bucks, according to the Pentagon’s own briefing, will go into conventional military equipment. That means more F-35s and F-18s than planned, a new presidential helicopter, Navy surveillance planes and destroyers, Marine helicopters, space launch rockets, tank modifications, another Army multipurpose vehicle, and a joint tactical vehicle the Army, Marines, and Air Force can all use. Basically, the services will soon have shiny new hardware.
With its $160+ billion budgetary boost over the next two years, the U.S. military will soon have many more shiny toys, which pleases Congress (jobs) and of course the military-industrial complex (higher and higher profits).
All of this is par for the Pentagon course, yet there are other, cultural and societal, reasons why the Pentagon is winning all the budgetary battles at home. Here are seven key reasons:
The heroes narrative. Collectively and individually, U.S. troops have been branded as heroes. And who is churlish and ungenerous enough to underfund America’s heroes?
Military weaponry has been rebranded as being all about our “safety” and “security.” With spillover into the Homeland, and even America’s classrooms (think about how guns for teachers are now being equated with safety for America’s children).
Defense contractors increasingly influence (and even own) the media, ensuring “journalists” like Brian Williams will wax poetically about the inspiring beauty of weapons. Rarely do you hear sustained criticism from the mainstream media about wasteful spending at the Pentagon.
At the same time, the mainstream media relies on “retired” senior military officers for analysis and commentary. Some of these men have links to defense contractors, and all of them are loath to criticize the military. They are, in a word, conflicted.
Throughout U.S. popular culture, military hardware is portrayed as desirable and “cool.” Think of all the superhero movies featuring jet fighters and other military hardware, or all the jets and helicopters flying over sports stadiums across the USA. For that matter, think of all the video games that focus on war and weaponry.
Related to (5) is a collective fantasy of power based on violence in war. Most Americans are powerless when it comes to politics and decision-making. Here is where our “beautiful” weapons can serve as potent symbols for a largely impotent people.
Finally, the ever-present climate of fear: fear of terrorists, immigrants, missiles from North Korea, Russian nukes, and so forth, even as the real killers in the USA (opioid abuse, vehicle accidents, shootings, bad or no healthcare, poor diets, climate-change-driven catastrophes, and of course diseases, some of which are preventable) are downplayed.
Defense spending used to be examined closely, with many programs exposed as wasteful. This was common in the aftermath of the Vietnam War in the 1970s and early 1980s – remember Senator William Proxmire and his Golden Fleece awards? Now, it seems there’s no such thing as wasteful spending. It’s a remarkable change of narrative representing an amazing success story for the military-industrial complex.
It will take more than cutting the Pentagon’s budget to effect change. America needs to change its mindset, an ethos in which weapons, even wars, are equated with safety and security and potency, and even occasionally with entertainment and fun.
In sum, the Pentagon is doing what it’s always done: issuing demands for more and more money. It’s up to us (and Congress) to say “no.”
If you want to know just what kind of mental space Washington’s still-growing cult of “national security” would like to take us into, consider a recent comment by retired general and Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. In late May on Fox and Friends, he claimed that “the American public would ‘never leave the house’ if they knew what he knew about terrorist threats.”
That seems like a reasonable summary of the national security state’s goal in the post-9/11 era: keep Americans in a fear-filled psychic-lockdown mode when it comes to supposed threats to our safety. Or put another way, the U.S. is a country in which the growing power of that shadow state and its staggering funding over the last decade and a half has been based largely on the promotion of the dangers of a single relatively small peril to Americans: “terrorism.” And as commonly used, that term doesn’t even encompass all the acts of political harm, hatred, and intimidation on the landscape, just those caused by a disparate group of Islamic extremists, who employ the tactics by which such terrorism is now defined. Let’s start with the irony that, despite the trillions of dollars that have poured into the country’s 17 intelligence agencies, its post-9/11 Department of Homeland Security, and the Pentagon in these years, the damage such terrorists have been able to inflict from Boston to San Bernardino to Orlando, while modest in a cumulative sense, has obviously by no means been stopped. That, in turn, makes the never-ending flow of American taxpayer dollars into what we like to call “national security” seem a poor investment indeed.
To deal with so many of the other perils in American life, it would occur to no one to build a massive and secretive government machinery of prevention. I’m thinking, for instance, of tots who pick up guns left lying around and kill others or themselves, or of men who pick up guns or other weapons and kill their wives or girlfriends. Both those phenomena have been deadlier to citizens of the United States in these years than the danger against which the national security state supposedly defends us. And I’m not even mentioning here the neo-Nazi and other white terrorists who seem to have been given a kind of green light in the Trump era (or even the disturbed Bernie Sanders supporter who just went after congressional Republicans on a ball field in Virginia). Despite their rising acts of mayhem, there is no suggestion that you need to shelter in place from them. And I’m certainly not going to dwell on the obvious: if you really wanted to protect yourself from one of the most devastating killers this society faces, you might leave your house with alacrity, but you’d never get into your car or any other vehicle. (In 2015, 38,300 people died on American roads and yet constant fear about cars is not a characteristic of this country.)
It’s true that when Islamic terrorists strike, as in two grim incidents in England recently, the media and the security state ramp up our fears to remarkable heights, making Americans increasingly anxious about something that’s unlikely to harm them. Looked at from a different angle, the version of national security on which that shadow state funds itself has some of the obvious hallmarks of both an elaborate sham and scam and yet it is seldom challenged here. It’s become so much a part of the landscape that few even think to question it.
In his latest post, Ira Chernus, TomDispatch regular and professor of religious studies, reminds us that it hasn’t always been so, that there was a moment just a half-century ago when the very idea of American national security was confronted at such a basic level that, ironically, the challenge wasn’t even understood as such. In this particular lockdown moment, however, perhaps it’s worth staying in your house and following Chernus, who’s visited the 1960s before for this website, on a long, strange trip back to 1967 and the famed Summer of Love. Tom
Be sure to read the entire post, “A Psychedelic Spin on National Security,” by Ira Chernus, at TomDispatch.com. Ah, to have a “summer of love” again!
Is Donald Trump going to be yet another American war president? Come to think of it, is there any other kind?
This is no accident. Tom Engelhardt has an insightful article at TomDispatch today about how Trump the blowhard is a product of blowback from America’s failed wars, notably Iraq. There’s much truth in this insight, since it’s hard to imagine demagogue Trump’s rise to power in a pacific climate. Trump arose in a climate of fear: fear of the Other, especially of the terrorist variety, but also of any group that can be marginalized and vilified. Think of Mexicans and the infamous Wall, for example.
In a separate post, Engelhardt noted the recent death of Marilyn Young, an historian who found herself specializing in America’s wars, notably Vietnam. He cited a New York Timesobituary on Young that highlighted her attentiveness to America’s wars and their continuity.
Since her childhood, Young noted, America had been at war: “the wars were not really limited and were never cold and in many places have not ended — in Latin America, in Africa, in East, South and Southeast Asia.”
She confessed that:
“I find that I have spent most of my life as a teacher and scholar thinking and writing about war. I moved from war to war, from the War of 1898 and U.S. participation in the Boxer Expedition and the Chinese civil war, to the Vietnam War, back to the Korean War, then further back to World War II and forward to the wars of the 20th and early 21st centuries.”
“Initially, I wrote about all these as if war and peace were discrete: prewar, war, peace or postwar,” she said. “Over time, this progression of wars has looked to me less like a progression than a continuation: as if between one war and the next, the country was on hold.”
As George Orwell wrote in 1984, all that matters is for a state of war to exist (whether declared or, nowadays in the USA, undeclared). A war mentality is the driver for autocratic excesses of all sorts. It serves to focus the attention of people to various perceived enemies, whether from without or from within. It promotes simplified thinking and generates fear, and fear is the mind-killer. “Us and Them,” as Pink Floyd sang.
Aggravating simplistic and hateful “us and them” thinking in the USA is the lack of a major political party dedicated to peace. In the USA, we have two war parties. Trump knew this and readily exploited (and continues to exploit) it. He knows the modern Democratic Party won’t seriously challenge the war rhetoric that drove and drives America’s new militarized reality.
Why? Because the Democrats nurtured it. Recall that in 2004 John Kerry “reported for duty” by saluting the Democratic National Convention. Barack Obama in 2008 quickly morphed from a “hope and change” liberal to a drone-wielding assassin-in-chief while pursuing his “good” war in Afghanistan. Hillary Clinton in 2016 proudly embraced Henry Kissinger and projected a harsh exterior as a hardheaded hawk. “We came, we saw, he died,” she famously chuckled about Libya and the death of Qaddafi. Even Bernie Sanders, with all his dreams, said little about cutting the Pentagon’s budget.
You can go back further and tag other recent Democratic presidents, such as LBJ during the Vietnam War or JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Candidate Kennedy wantonly exaggerated the “missile gap” in nuclear capability between the US and USSR (JFK had it backwards; it was the US that had clear superiority). Jimmy Carter took a different approach, but he too soon learned his lesson, ordering a huge military buildup (overseen by the Reagan Administration) and declaring the “Carter Doctrine” to safeguard Persian Gulf oil supplies as a vital US interest. That policy contributed in its own way to America’s recent disasters in the Greater Middle East.
Did Jimmy Carter, then, lead to Donald Trump? Indirectly, yes. America’s insatiable hunger for global resources (especially oil) and its desire for global power bred the conditions under which blowback came to America’s shores. Blowback helped to generate the fear and confused desires for revenge that Trump tapped with great success in his campaign.
Today, America’s state of incessant warfare is consuming its democracy, yet President Trump’s answer is to call for more military spending, more violent attacks overseas, and more walls at home, all in a vain quest to “win” again. Small wonder then that he’s ramping up military spending while ordering more attacks.
Trump knows what got him to the Oval Office, and it wasn’t his keen intelligence or gentlemanly charm or skill at diplomacy. Recall that his favorite generals, George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, were all about “winning” even as they both wanted to wage the wrong wars (Patton was ready to take on the Soviets in 1945; MacArthur wanted to cross the Yalu River and invade China during the Korean War).
Will Trump, like his favorite World War II generals, seek to wage the wrong wars? Will he recognize that fighting the wrong war is a loss even when you “win”? Does he want to be a “war president,” and, if so, who will stop him?