To dream the impossible dream/To fight the unbeatable foe/To bear with unbearable sorrow/To run where the brave dare not go …
Whether you call it the military-industrial complex (MIC), the national security state, the MICIMATT,1 the blob, or something else entirely, taking on the MIC and trying to restrain its influence and power is akin to dreaming the impossible dream.
President Eisenhower warned us about the grave threat posed to liberty and democracy by the MIC in 1961. In the early 1980s, as a college student, I wrote against the growth of the MIC and massive Pentagon spending under President Ronald Reagan. After I retired from the military, I started writing articles, giving interviews, etc. against the MIC and militarism in America. I’ve been doing it for fifteen years, and it hasn’t made any discernible difference. Why should it?
The MIC is massive and massively powerful. It consumes more than half of the federal discretionary budget. It employs millions of people. It is wildly profitable for major military contractors like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon. It is sold as essential to America’s national security and safety. Its uniformed members are lauded as heroes. We are all as Americans immersed in a matrix of militarism and imperialism since birth; to fight against it, then, is often seen as un-American.
Spoiler alert: I have no easy answers. There are no silver bullets. Ike called for an alert and knowledgable citizenry (that’s us) who would act as guards against the growing anti-democratic power of the MIC. The MIC responded by making sure we are kept largely docile and ignorant of its plans and actions.
When brave Americans do speak up, they are punished. Not people like me—I’m small fry. I mean people like Martin Luther King Jr., who called America the world’s greatest purveyor of violence during the Vietnam War. That speech made him unpopular even among many of his followers; exactly one year later, he was shot and killed.
People who truly pose a threat to the MIC are taught a lesson. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, at the time also a major in the Hawaii Army National Guard, was smeared by NBC News as a Russian asset when she announced her candidacy for president in 2020. Gabbard was the only mainstream candidate criticizing the MIC and its disastrous regime-change wars. Dennis Kucinich, who bravely advocated for a Department of Peace, was sidelined and silenced by his own party (the Democrats). Jill Stein, who ran in 2016 as the Green Party candidate for the presidency, was also smeared as a “useful idiot” for Russia because she called for major reductions to war budgets.
There are many examples of brave Americans fighting the MIC. Edward Snowden told the truth about abuses of power by U.S. intelligence agencies; he’s in exile in Russia. Chelsea Manning went to prison for bravely exposing war crimes in Iraq. Daniel Hale is in prison for exposing the murderous results of America’s drone wars. Even foreign journalists like Julian Assange aren’t safe. Assange embarrassed the MIC and partially exposed the hideous face of war to Americans, and for that he’s being held in a maximum security prison under conditions meant to break him physically and mentally.
What is to be done? It’s flattering to me that a few readers think I might have answers. I have none. I’m not an organizer, I’m not an agitator or protester, I’m just a retired military schmuck looking for a new way forward for our country (and, by extension, for the planet). A new cold war is not a new way forward. Indeed, a new cold war will only ensure a hotter future for us all, if not an irradiated one.
I think George McGovern had the right approach in 1972. “Come home, America,” McGovern said. Stop trying to dominate the world. Stop claiming that democracy can be spread by bullets and bombs. Downsize the military and the whole MICIMATT and with the money saved send a check to every American. Call it a true peace dividend.
Support our troops—bring them home, is a commonsense message that holds appeal. Returning to Eisenhower, Ike once said that only Americans can truly hurt America. We hurt America when we exaggerate threats overseas, when we give blank checks to warmongers, indeed when we forget how hellish war truly is and how corrosive it is to our democracy (what’s left of it) and our way of life.
I’ve written so much about this that I know I’m repeating myself. And I’m probably preaching to the choir as well. But the choir must keep singing, even when the dogs of war howl to drown us out.
America needs a reformation or a revolution. A restoration of liberty where war and militarism are seen as the antithesis of liberty. Why can’t America be a shining city on a hill? Why do we instead choose to be a dark fortress bristling with cannons?
To dream the impossible dream/to fight the unbeatable foe …
Military-industrial-congressional-intelligence-media-academia-think tank complex. An awkward acronym that does help to capture the size and reach of the national security state. The MIC itself is supported by the mainstream media, many colleges and universities that are funded by the DoD, and all those think tanks in the DC area that are often funded by major weapons makers. Truly a Goliath awaiting a David with a slingshot.
Fifty years ago, a remarkable thing happened in America. A pro-peace candidate, George McGovern, won the nomination for one of America’s two major political parties. Of course, McGovern went on to lose big time to Richard Nixon in the fall, but his rise within the Democratic Party, much of it driven by grassroots activism, still inspires hope.
McGovern was right in 1972 in his justly famous “Come home, America” speech after he gained the nomination. It’s time to end overseas wars and military adventurism and heal our divisions here at home. The big problem, of course, is that so many powerful elements within the U.S. thrive best when the masses are kept busy fighting each other.
A friend posted this image on Facebook, which sums up much of America’s predicament today:
To borrow from my father once again, in America the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. And the rich have neither sympathy nor use for the poor. Unless by “use” you mean soldiers for empire, cleaners for mansions, and so on.
What is to be done? People ask me this a lot, expecting me to have a magical solution. I say fight the best you can, using your skills and the tools at your disposal. But make sure you’re fighting the right people and forces. Don’t fight your neighbors within the terrarium. Fight the powerful who are preventing change by keeping us divided, distracted, and downtrodden.
Today, I parked behind a car that had a “Semper Fi” sticker for the Marines, an American flag sticker, another sticker that said “Don’t blame me, I voted for Trump,” and a final sticker that read: “The Media Is the Virus” (in place of Covid-19, I assume). It’s nice that people identify themselves so readily in America, thereby making it easier to avoid them. I’ve traveled to a few countries and I’ve never seen this proclivity for bumper stickers and the like replicated in other lands. What is it about Americans that we want our cars and trucks and SUVs to scream our views? Doesn’t matter if you’re “liberal” or a Trumper or what-have-you. Americans are very much in your face about their beliefs. Because, ah, freedom?
Who will win in 2022 and 2024: the woke Republicans, otherwise known as Democrats, or the unwoke ones who generally support Trump? And if you think Democrats like Joe Biden aren’t like Republicans, consider this: Biden is pro-police, pro-military, pro-war, and anti-worker in the sense that we’ve seen no increase to the federal minimum wage, no student debt relief, no meaningful health care reform, and no concerted effort to reduce inflation or to lower gasoline prices. As the rich get richer under Biden, generally the poor get poorer. Worked the same way under Trump and Obama, didn’t it?
If we judge Biden by his deeds as well as his words, he’s emulated the pro-business Republican-lite policies of Barack Obama, but with none of Obama’s charisma.
Isn’t it time America had a second party to choose from, rather than two right-wing factions of the same corporate uniparty?
Biden has a new press secretary who’s a Black female and a member of the LGBTQ community. Will it feel any better being lied to by her rather than a white female or the typical cis white male? As Cornel West noted, it’s not enough to put Black faces in high places if they’re just as committed to the Establishment as the typical cis white male. We need more than optical diversity in this country.
That said, I’d love to see more women in Congress (indeed, more women in all positions of power), and more diversity across America. But, again, if the “civilian” Secretary of Defense is from Raytheon via a career spent in the U.S. Army, does it really matter that he’s Black when he’s thoroughly a man of the military-industrial complex?
What if all NFL players wore peace symbols on their helmets rather than American flags? Would their heads explode first, or ours?
There’s no escaping the military-industrial complex. This weekend, I watched the Red Sox play the Rangers in Texas. There’s a huge blue and white ad for Lockheed Martin in the outfield; even worse, the company logo was superimposed on the pitcher’s mound! Every pitch, almost every play, was sponsored by my friends at Lockheed Martin, maker of the F-35 jet fighter, among other weapons. How heartening!
Remember those old commercials: baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet? Chevrolet has been replaced by Lockheed Martin, with our president visiting weapons factories to promote the Javelin missile. With our president shilling for weapons and with Congress shoveling more than $50 billion to Ukraine to sustain a devastating war, tell me again how Democrats are making the world safer and more secure?
What will be the next galvanizing cause that forces people into the streets? The last one was Black Lives Matter and protests against police brutality that briefly led to a “defund the police” moment, which really meant to decrease police militarization while allocating more funds for mental health, family counselors, and other non-violent approaches to defusing trouble. President Biden has already said the answer is to fund the police, not defund them. How is this a “democratic” message? How is this even remotely adequate as a response to the very real anger and grievances of the BLM movement?
Fifty years ago, George McGovern asked America “to come home.” To end foreign wars. To focus on our problems here. To cut the Pentagon budget and to refund the savings to the American people. Was he the last real Democrat to run for President? Why do you never, ever, hear about his ideas today?
Why has every president since Ronald Reagan used the office to cash in after leaving? Kudos to Jimmy Carter for being a true, humble, and honorable public servant, and for having a brother who briefly brought us Billy Beer.
Sixty-one years ago, in 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned America of the threat posed by the military-industrial complex (MIC). To that complex, Ike had rightly added Congress, whose members are generally supportive of immense military spending, especially when it occurs in their district. Americans, in the main, haven’t heeded Ike’s warning, mainly due to government/corporate propaganda, military lobbying and threat inflation, wars and rumors of war, the naked desire for global dominance in the stated cause of keeping the “homeland” safe, and, well, greed.
How does “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” tackle such a beast? I was part of a discussion this week on strategies to “dismantle” the MIC; more on that in a moment. First, a caveat. When I use the term “military-industrial complex,” I know what I’m referring to and talking about, and so too do my readers. But what about your average American, who perhaps has barely heard of President Eisenhower, let alone his farewell address in 1961? And what about those who prosper from the MIC, whether they know it or not? Why should they support calls for “dismantling” a big part of their livelihood?
Random example. I went to the doctor’s office today. The receptionist noted my military background as she told me about her son, whose work on red blood cells is funded by the Department of Defense, and her husband, whose work is connected to Raytheon, a major weapons contractor. Another example is my previous dental hygienist, whose husband proudly worked on the helmet system for the F-35 jet fighter. So many of our fellow Americans are connected to the MIC; lots of my friends are, especially if they served. As a retired military officer who writes articles that are generally critical of the MIC, I’m the exception. Many of my peers are still employed by the MIC in good-paying positions that would be difficult for them to replicate in the private, civilian sector of society.
This is not an argument for how wonderful the MIC is. But reformers need to recognize that significant cuts to MIC funding, desirable as they are, will impact ordinary people first, rather than retired generals and corporate CEOs, who will be just fine no matter what happens.
Whatever your reforming zeal, terminology is vitally important. To me, talk of “dismantling” the MIC is a non-starter. Like “defund” the police, it’s doomed to fail because its message is so easily twisted. Recall that for most Americans, the military remains a trusted institution within our society, much more trusted than Congress and the President. “Support our troops” is almost the new national motto, an adjunct to In God We Trust. Indeed, Jesus is often envisioned as a warrior-god who’s always on America’s side.
To be persuasive, we shouldn’t say “defund” the Pentagon; “dismantle” also sounds wrong in this moment. But if we talk of a leaner military, a smarter one, more agile, more cost-effective, more bang for the buck, those phrases will resonate better. Let’s talk as well of a military focused on national defense, motivated by high ideals, and aligned with liberty, freedom, and democracy.
Look: The MIC has a big advantage over would-be reformers and cost-cutters: the clarity that comes with a common goal, which for the Complex is profit/power. We live in a capitalist society that values those things. I don’t think we can compete on the money field with the MIC, but we can compete in the realm of ideas and ideals, and the military can be an ally in this, so long as its members remember the ideals of their oaths to the U.S. Constitution.
What do I mean here? We need to tell Americans their very future is being stolen from them by wanton military spending. At the same time, their past is being rewritten. We’re forgetting past American ideals like “right makes might” and the citizen-soldier as a public servant. Instead, it’s might makes right as enforced by warriors and warfighters. We are in yet another Orwellian moment where war is peace, surveillance is privacy, and censorship is free speech.
In fighting against this moment, we need to use all tools at our disposal. Somehow, we need to bring people together at a moment when our “leaders” are determined to divide us, distract us, and keep us downtrodden.
“Come home, America” is a famous speech given fifty years ago by George McGovern. He wanted to cut military/war spending and send rebate checks directly to the American people. Let’s advocate for that! Let’s put money back in the pockets of Americans as we make a leaner, smarter, cheaper U.S. military that can pass a financial audit. (I’d cut all Pentagon funding until it passed an honest and thorough audit.) Most Americans would support major reforms if they were pitched in this way.
At the same time, I’d like to see a revival of the Nye Commission from the 1930s and the “merchants of death” idea. Whatever else it is, selling weapons is not a way to peace, nor is it life-affirming. Harry Truman made his mark in Congress during World War II by attacking fraud and waste related to military spending. Again, today’s Pentagon can’t even pass an audit! We need to show the American people that the Pentagon brass is stealing from them and hiding behind a veil of secrecy that is undemocratic and probably illegal as well. Here, I would love to see Members of Congress act in the spirit of William Proxmire and his “Golden Fleece” awards. The American people are being fleeced by the MIC, and we should be reminding them of this fact, every single day.
In the 1930s, General Smedley Butler, a Marine veteran who was twice awarded the Medal of Honor, saw how war was a racket, and that to end it, you had to take the profit out of it. How can America do that? Can we “nationalize” defense contractors? Can we make weapons building into a non-profit activity? Can we reverse Citizens’ United and outlaw weapons lobbying as a form of protected speech (it’s really legalized bribery)?
How about slowing the revolving door between the U.S. military and weapons contractors? Make it so that retired officers in the grade of major and above must forfeit their pensions if they join a weapons/war firm. Naturally, no one employed by, and especially on the board of, a defense contractor should ever be approved by Congress as the civilian Secretary of Defense.
Another idea: All retired military officers, CIA-types, etc., who appear on TV and media should be required to reveal their conflicts of interest (if any). For example, if retired General John Q. Public appears on TV and works for Raytheon, that should be identified in the on-screen chyron, and by the general himself if he has integrity.
It’s high time the Pentagon shares more information with the American people. Secrecy is a huge problem that the MIC hides behind and exploits. Democracy doesn’t work without transparency, which is why the MIC is at pains to hide the truth from us of malfunctioning weaponry and disastrous and murderous wars.
I would add that tackling the MIC is not a liberal issue, it’s not a progressive issue, it’s not a partisan issue: it’s an American issue. My readers, I’m guessing, are not fans of Fox News or commentators like Tucker Carlson. But if they’re against war and want to see major reforms to the MIC, recruit them! Work with them. They are not the enemy. Not even the MIC is the enemy. I was, after all, part of it for 20 years. The real enemy is war. The real enemy is spending trillions of dollars on weaponry that could, and just might, destroy us all. If we can’t set aside our differences and get together to save ourselves and our planet from war’s destructiveness, we’re pretty much doomed, don’t you think?
The MIC is united by profit and power. Maybe we can find unity in the preservation of our planet and love for the wonderful blessings it has bestowed on us.
Come on people now, smile on your brother everybody get together try to love one another right now. Right now. Right now.
On “Two Minutes to Midnight,” I talk about some of the themes I’ve developed at this site. Produced by Catalysta, the idea behind the series is to encourage fresh thinking on the challenges confronting us in a rapidly changing world.
In this interview, I explain how and why America spends way too much on weaponry and wars, and how we can shift the narrative and revive the idea of peace. Echoing George McGovern, it’s time to “come home, America,” to invest in our country and ourselves, rather than to fund more weaponry and more overseas wars.
Near the end of the video, I make an appeal to younger generations of America to lift their voices against the military-industrial-Congressional complex. I urge them not to be intimidated and to speak their mind, explaining that many veterans are just as fed up as they are. Collectively, we need to act. And perhaps the first and most critical step is getting big corporate money out of politics even as we work to make major cuts to the U.S. war budget.
Special thanks to Edward Goldberg at Catalysta.net for inviting me and offering me a chance to share my views with a wider audience.
In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I ask a simple question: What would real national defense look like? Here are some answers.
What would real national defense for this country look like? Rarely do any of us pose this question, no less examine what it might truly mean. Rarely do we think about all the changes we’d have to make as a nation and a people if we were to put defense first, second, and last, while leaving behind both our imperial wars and domestic militarism.
I know what it wouldn’t look like. It wouldn’t look like today’s grossly inflated military. A true Department of Defense wouldn’t need 800 foreign military bases, nor would the national security state need a budget that routinely exceeds a trillion dollars annually. We wouldn’t need a huge, mechanized army, a navy built around aircraft carriers, or an air force that boasts of its global reach and global power, all of it created not for defense but for offense — for destruction, anytime, anywhere.
As a country, we would need to imagine a new “people’s” military as a force that could truly defend the American republic. That would obviously mean one focused above all on supporting the Constitution and the rights we (at least theoretically) hold sacred like freedom of speech, the press, and assembly, the right to privacy and due process, and of course the right to justice for all, not just for the highest bidder or those with the deepest pockets.
What might such a new military look like? First, it would be much smaller. America’s current military, including troops on active duty, reservists, and members of the National Guard, consists of roughly 2.4 million men and women. Those numbers should gradually be cut at least in half. Second, its budget should similarly be dramatically cut, the end goal being to have it 50% lower than next year’s proposed budget of $715 billion. Third, it wouldn’t be based and deployed around the world. As a republican force (note the lower-case “r”), it would instead serve democratic ends rather than imperial ones. It would certainly need far fewer generals and admirals. Its mission wouldn’t involve “global reach,” but would be defensive, focused on our borders and this hemisphere.
A friend of mine, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, speaks of a military that would consist of a Coast Guard, “militias” (that is, the National Guard) for each of the fifty states, and little else. Yes, in this America, that sounds beyond extreme, but he has a point. Consider our unique advantages in terms of geography. Our continent is protected by two vast oceans. We share a long and peaceful border with Canada. While the border with Mexico is certainly troubled, we’re talking about unarmed, desperate migrants, not a military invasion flooding into Texas to retake the Alamo.
Here, then, are just 10 ways America’s military could change under a vision that would put the defense of America first and free up some genuine funds for domestic needs as well:
No more new nuclear weapons. It’s time to stop “modernizing” that arsenal to the tune of possibly $1.7 trillion over the next three decades. Land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles like the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, expected to cost more than $264 billion during its lifetime, and “strategic” (nuclear) bombers like the Air Force’s proposed B-21 Raider should be eliminated. The Trident submarine force should also be made smaller, with limited modernization to improve its survivability.
All Army divisions should be reduced to cadres (smaller units capable of expansion in times of war), except the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions and the 10th Mountain Division.
The Navy should largely be redeployed to our hemisphere, while aircraft carriers and related major surface ships are significantly reduced in number.
The Air Force should be redesigned around the defense of America’s air space, rather than attacking others across the planet at any time. Meanwhile, costly offensive fighter-bombers like the F-35, itself a potential $1.7 trillion boondoggle, should simply be eliminated and the habit of committing drone assassinations across the planet ended. Similarly, the separate space force created by President Trump should be folded back into a much-reduced Air Force.
The training of foreign militaries and police forces in places like Iraq and Afghanistan should be stopped. The utter collapse of the U.S.-trained forces in Iraqin the face of the Islamic State in 2014 and the ongoing collapse of the U.S.-trained Afghan military today have made a mockery of this whole process.
Military missions launched by intelligence agencies like the CIA, including those drone assassination programs overseas, should be halted and the urge to intervene secretly in the political and military lives of so many other countries finally brought under some kind of control.
The “industrial” part of the military-industrial complex should also be brought under control, so that taxpayer dollars don’t go to fabulously expensive, largely useless weaponry. At the same time, the U.S. government should stop promoting the products of our major weapons makers around the planet.
Above all, in a democracy like ours, a future defensive military should only fight in a war when Congress, as the Constitution demands, formally declares one.
The military draft should be restored. With a far smaller force, such a draft should have a limited impact, but it would ensure that the working classes of America, which have historically shouldered a heavy burden in military service, will no longer do so alone. In the future America of my military dreams, a draft would take the eligible sons and daughters of our politicians first, followed by all eligible students enrolled in elite prep schools and private colleges and universities, beginning with the Ivy League. After all, America’s best and brightest will surely want to serve in a military devoted to defending their way of life.
Finally, there should be only one four-star general or admiral in each of the three services. Currently, believe it or not, there are an astonishing 44 four-star generals and admirals in America’s imperial forces. There are also hundreds of one-star, two-star, and three-star officers. This top-heavy structure inhibits reform even as the highest-ranking officers never take responsibility for America’s lost wars.
Pivoting to America
Perhaps you’ve heard of the “pivot to Asia” under the Obama administration — the idea of redeploying U.S. military forces from the Greater Middle East and elsewhere in response to perceived threats from China. As it happened, it took the new Biden administration to begin to pull off that particular pivot, but America’s imperial military regularly seems to be pivoting somewhere or other. It’s time to pivot to this country instead.
Echoing the words of George McGovern, a highly decorated World War II bomber pilot who unsuccessfully ran for president against Richard Nixon in 1972, “Come home, America.” Close all those foreign military bases. Redirect resources from wars and weapons to peace and prosperity. Focus on restoring the republic. That’s how Americans working together could truly defend ourselves, not only from our “enemies” overseas, almost always much exaggerated, but from ourselves, the military-industrial-congressional complex, and all our fears.
America’s Democratic Party, as it stands today, is essentially a pro-business and pro-war party. On the political spectrum, it’s a center-right party, roughly equivalent to the Republican Party of the 1970s but probably more conservative. Joe Biden, for example, is against Medicare for All, and he’s abandoned all talk of a single-payer option. He’s refused to fight for a $15 federal minimum wage. He’s most likely extending the war in Afghanistan well past the troop pullout date of May 1st as negotiated by the Trump administration. He’s keeping military spending high and is pursuing a hardline foreign policy vis-à-vis Russia and China.
America’s Republican Party has become the party of Trump. It’s unapologetically far-right, evangelical, anti-immigrant, and openly contemptuous of Democratic calls for “diversity.” Like the Democratic Party, it’s militaristic, pro-business, and pro-war, but is even more in favor of blank checks for Wall Street and the major banks and corporations. Its strategy for future victories focuses on suppression of minority voters through various laws and restrictions (voter ID laws, closing polling places, restricting mail-in and early voting, and so on). The Republican Party’s version of “cancel culture” is canceling as much of the vote by minorities as it can.
You’ll notice what’s missing: any major political party that’s center-left or left; any party that has any allegiance to workers, i.e. most of America. There are new parties being created, like the People’s Party, that promise to fill a gaping hole on the left, but it may take decades before a new party can seriously challenge America’s two main parties.
What’s truly depressing is that the mainstream media, along with the Republicans, sell and support a narrative that the Democrats are radical leftists. That such a laughably false narrative is embraced by America’s talking heads on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and the other major networks highlights their complicity in ensuring the triumph of business and war imperatives in America.
What this means for elections in 2022 and 2024 was brought home to me by Richard Dougherty’s book, “Goodbye, Mr. Christian: A Personal Account of McGovern’s Rise and Fall” published in 1973. Dougherty nailed it back then when he talked about the baneful influence of the Republican Party as led by Richard Nixon and its reaction to attempts at real reform by George McGovern. Here’s an excerpt:
“McGovern saw something new emerging in American politics and saw that it was ugly and frightening not only because of its burglars and saboteurs, its insensitivity to the delicate mechanisms of freedom, but for its profound deceptions of a troubled people which, if successful, would reduce and debase them as a people. Nixon offered no improvement in the life of the people but only empty and ersatz satisfactions to their angers and bewilderments. It cost the rich Nixonian oligarchs nothing, yet it gratified the lumpenbourgeoisie to tell the poor to go out and get jobs, the black children to stay off the buses, the young draft evaders to stay out of the country, to make noises about permissive judges rather than hire more policeman.
Let ‘em eat revenge.
That was the gimmick. Was not this sleaziness, this moral midgetry, this menace to the American character, proper stuff for a presidential candidate [like McGovern] to raise as an issue?” (246-7)
I thought this passage captured what we’re likely to see in the next four years: more sleaziness, more deceptions, more divisiveness, even as the plight of ordinary Americans worsens.
But it’s worse now than in 1973 because the oligarchs now own both parties, the Democratic as well as the Republican.
The challenge for us all is to look past the sleaze, the deceptions, the divisiveness and to focus on bettering the plight of ordinary Americans. To free ourselves from the oligarchs and the narrative control they exercise via the major media networks. To recapture the reformist spirit of the 1960s and early 1970s as embodied by a leader like George McGovern.
This week, Congress will attempt to override President Trump’s veto of the NDAA, the national defense authorization act, which in 2021 provides $740 billion to the Pentagon and its wars. As usual, there is strong bipartisan support for this massive war budget. Democrats will join Republicans in bowing and scraping before the military-industrial complex, even as they frame it in terms of “supporting” the troops and defending America. In short, Trump’s veto will not stand.
I’m so fed up with Democrats serving the war party, denying health care to all Americans, and so on that I finally changed my political party designation in my home state. I am now a no-party independent instead of a registered Democrat. (My wife joined me as she’s no fan of “handsy” Joe Biden and the refusal of “centrist” Democrats to help people in meaningful ways.)
Perhaps that’s what we all need to do. Reject the Republican and Democratic parties and fight for a political establishment that would put people first rather than billionaires and corporations. Short of revolution, I don’t see other options that promise meaningful change.
To my knowledge, the last major party presidential candidate who called for meaningful reductions in war spending was George McGovern. For example, McGovern called for a defense budget in 1975 of $54.8 billion, roughly $32 billion less than what the Nixon administration had proposed. McGovern, of course, had to couch this in terms of America still being a superpower with a nuclear arsenal that would be second to none, but at least he had the courage to talk of peace and of new approaches to foreign policy that would put diplomacy first instead of weaponry and war. What a loser he was, right?
If we applied a McGovern-size cut to today’s NDAA, we’d be talking about a “defense” budget of roughly $470 billion a year, still plenty of money, one would think, for the Pentagon to defend America. The $270 billion in savings could and should be applied to stimulus checks for Americans desperate for help in these Covid-disturbed times.
Imagine Americans getting a check from the government — a rebate of sorts — as a peace dividend! What would Americans rather have: a bunch of expensive F-35 jet fighters; ultra-expensive newer nuclear weapons on top of the ultra-expensive older ones; or some cash in pocket to buy groceries and pay their rent? I don’t know about you, but more F-35s and more nuclear bombers and missiles are not helping my bottom line.
To return to my changed political party affiliation: When a Democratic president-elect nominates a retired general and board member of Raytheon as the best person to exercise civilian oversight over the Pentagon, you know the Democratic party is a toady to the military-industrial complex and devoid of integrity as well as fresh ideas.
War? What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Time for some peace dividends, America.
In the presidential election of 1972, Richard Nixon destroyed George McGovern. McGovern won only one state, and it wasn’t even his home state. Of course, Nixon soon experienced his own destruction with Watergate, but the fact remains that McGovern and the Liberal/Left wing of the Democratic party never fully recovered from their drubbing in 1972.
And what a shame that was for America. I’ve been reading “The Liberals’ Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party,” by Bruce Miroff, and the more I read, the more impressed I am by McGovern’s principled stance against the Vietnam War, and war in general.
Miroff cites a Senate speech McGovern made in September of 1970 that deeply impressed me. McGovern didn’t mince words as he called his fellow senators to account for their complicity in approving and continuing war in Southeast Asia:
Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval [hospitals] and all across our land–young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces, or hopes. There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor, or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war, those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.
Blunt and powerful words! How refreshing they are compared to the weasel words that come from Congress today. Unsurprisingly, McGovern’s principled stance against the war, and his gutsy call for the Congress to do something to stop it, were unpopular among his fellow senators. He didn’t care about them. He cared about saving lives and ending war.
Now, what was Nixon up to? He’d hoped he’d be running against McGovern, expecting he’d be vulnerable to dirty tricks. Reading Miroff, I discovered that Nixon, among other dirty tricks, actually discussed planting McGovern campaign material in the apartment of Arthur Bremer, the man who’d tried to assassinate George Wallace in May of 1972. Nixon’s scheme was only abandoned when it was learned the FBI had already sealed Bremer’s apartment.
Think of Nixon’s scheme here. He was already well ahead of McGovern in the polls, his reelection a near-certainty, yet Nixon would stop at nothing to tear McGovern down. It was such dirty tricks, of course, that would lead to Nixon’s downfall with Watergate.
History shows that Nixon won the election of 1972, but McGovern was the real winner in life. Nixon continued to prosecute a war with devastating consequences; McGovern fought to stop it. Nixon ran a dishonorable campaign; McGovern a hopeful one, an idealistic one, one that called on Americans to live up to their rhetoric of freedom and self-determination and charity.
I started writing for TomDispatch.com in 2007. I really thought I had one article to write, focusing on the disastrous Iraq War and the way in which the Bush/Cheney administration was hiding its worst results behind the bemedaled chest of General David Petraeus. Here we are, in 2020, and my latest article is my 75th contribution to the site, which truly amazes me. Special thanks to Tom Engelhardt for publishing my first piece back in 2007 and for setting a stellar example of what alternative freethinking media can be.
As I lived through the nightmare of the election campaign just past, I often found myself dreaming of another American world entirely. Anything but this one.
In that spirit, I also found myself looking at a photo of my fourth-grade class, vintage 1972. Tacked to the wall behind our heads was a collage, a tapestry of sorts that I could make out fairly clearly. It evoked the promise and the chaos of a turbulent year so long ago. The promise lay in a segment that read “peace” and included a green ecology flag, a black baseball player (Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman Jackie Robinson, who had died that year), and a clenched fist inside the outline of the symbol for female (standing in for the new feminism of that moment and the push for equal rights for women).
Representing the chaos of that era were images of B-52s dropping bombs in Vietnam (a war that was still ongoing) and a demonstration for racist Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace (probably because he had been shot and wounded in an assassination attempt that May). A rocket labeled “USA” reminded me that this country was then still launching triumphant Apollo missions to the moon.
How far we’ve come in not quite half a century! In 2020, “peace” isn’t even a word in the American political dictionary; despite Greta Thunberg, a growing climate-change movement, and Joe Biden’s two-trillion-dollar climate plan, ecology was largely a foreign concept in the election just past as both political parties embraced fracking and fossil fuels (even if Biden’s embrace was less tight); Major League Baseball has actually suffered a decline in African-American players in recent years; and the quest for women’s equality remains distinctly unfulfilled.
Bombing continues, of course, though those bombs and missiles are now aimed mostly at various Islamist insurgencies rather than communist ones, and it’s often done by drones, not B-52s, although those venerable planes are still used to threaten Moscow and Beijing with nuclear carnage. George Wallace has, of course, been replaced by Donald Trump, a racist who turned President Richard Nixon’s southern strategy of my grade school years into a national presidential victory in 2016 and who, as president, regularly nodded in the direction ofwhite supremacists.
Progress, anyone? Indeed, that class photo of mine even featured the flag of China, a reminder that Nixon had broken new ground that very year by traveling to Beijing to meet with Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong and de-escalate the Cold War tensions of the era. Nowadays, Americans only hear that China is a military and economic threat; that Joe Biden and some Democrats are allegedly far too China-friendly (they aren’t); and that Covid-19 (aka the “Wuhan Flu” or “Kung Flu”) was — at least to Donald Trump and his followers — a plague sent by the Chinese to kill us.
Another symbol from that tapestry, a chess piece, reminded me that in 1972 we witnessed the famous Cold War meeting between the youthful, brilliant, if mercurial Bobby Fischer and Soviet chess champion Boris Spassky in a match that evoked all the hysteria and paranoia of the Cold War. Inspired by Fischer, I started playing the game myself and became a card-carrying member of the U.S. Chess Federation until I realized my talent was limited indeed.
The year 1972 ended with Republican Richard Nixon’s landslide victory over Democratic Senator George McGovern, who carried only my home state of Massachusetts. After Nixon’s landslide victory, I remember bumper stickers that said: “Don’t blame me for Nixon, I’m from Massachusetts.”
Eighteen years later, in 1990, I would briefly meet the former senator. He was attending a history symposium on the Vietnam War at the U.S. Air Force Academy and, as a young Air Force captain, I chased down a book for him in the Academy’s library. I don’t think I knew then of McGovern’s stellar combat record in World War II. A skilled pilot, he had flown 35 combat missions in a B-24 bomber, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross for, at one point, successfully landing a plane heavily damaged by enemy fire and saving his crew. Nixon, who had served in the Navy during that war, never saw combat. But he did see lots of time at the poker table, winning a tidy sum of money, which he would funnel into his first political campaign.
Like so many combat veterans of the “greatest generation,” McGovern never bragged about his wartime exploits. Over the years, however, that sensible, honorable, courageous American patriot became far too strongly associated with peace, love, and understanding. A staunch defender of civil rights, a believer in progressive government, a committed opponent of the Vietnam War, he would find himself smeared by Republicans as weak, almost cowardly, on military matters and an anti-capitalist (the rough equivalent today of democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders).
Apparently, this country couldn’t then and still can’t accept any major-party candidate who doesn’t believe in a colossal military establishment and a government that serves business and industry first and foremost or else our choice in 2020 wouldn’t have been Trump-Pence versus Biden-Harris.
Channeling Lloyd Bentsen
As I began writing this piece in late October, I didn’t yet know that Joe Biden would indeed win the most embattled election of our lifetime. What I did know was that the country that once produced (and then rejected) thoughtful patriots like George McGovern was in serious decline. Most Americans desperately want change, so the pollsters tell us, whether we call ourselves Republicans or Democrats, conservatives, liberals, or socialists. Both election campaigns, however, essentially promised us little but their own versions of the status quo, however bizarre Donald Trump’s may have been.
In truth, Trump didn’t even bother to present a plan for anything, including bringing the pandemic under control. He just promised four more years of Keeping America Trumpish Again with yet another capital gains tax cut thrown in. Biden ran on a revival of Barack Obama’s legacy with the “hope and change” idealism largely left out. Faced with such a choice in an increasingly desperate country, with spiking Covid-19 cases in state after state and hospitals increasingly overwhelmed, too many of us sought relief in opioids or gun purchases, bad habits like fatty foods and lack of exercise, and wanton carelessness with regard to the most obvious pandemic safety measures.
Since the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and especially since September 11, 2001, it’s amazing what Americans have come to accept as normal. Forget about peace, love, and understanding. What we now see on America’s streets aren’t antiwar protesters or even beat cops, but Robocops armed to the teeth with military-style weaponry committing indefensible acts of violence. Extremist “militias” like the Proud Boys are celebrated (by some) as “patriots.” Ludicrous QAnon conspiracy theories are taken all too seriously with political candidates on the Republican side of the aisle lining up to endorse them.
Even six-figure death tolls from a raging pandemic were normalized as President Trump barnstormed the country, applauding himself to maskless crowds at super-spreader rallies for keeping Covid-19 deaths under the mythical figure of 2.2 million. Meanwhile, the rest of us found nothing to celebrate in what — in Vietnam terms — could be thought of as a new body count, this time right here in the homeland.
And speaking of potential future body counts, consider again the Proud Boys whom our president in that first presidential debate asked to “stand back and stand by.” Obviously not a militia, they might better be described as a gang. Close your eyes and imagine that all the Proud Boys were black. What would they be called then by those on the right? A menace, to say the least, and probably far worse.
A real militia would, of course, be under local, state, or federal authority with a chain of command and a code of discipline, not just a bunch of alienated guys playing at military dress-up and spoiling for a fight. Yet too many Americans see them through a militarized lens, applauding those “boys” as they wave blue-line pro-police flags and shout “all lives matter.” Whatever flags they may wrap themselves in, they are, in truth, nothing more than nationalist bully boys.
Groups like the Proud Boys are only the most extreme example of the “patriotic” poseurs, parades, and pageantry in the U.S.A. of 2020. And collectively all of it, including our lost and embattled president, add up to a red-white-and-blue distraction (and what a distraction it’s been!) from an essential reality: that America is in serious trouble — and you can take that “America” to mean ordinary people working hard to make a living (or not working at all right now), desperate to maintain roofs over their heads and feed their kids.
It’s a distraction as well from the reality that America hasn’t decisively won a war since the time George McGovern flew all those combat missions in a B-24. It’s a distraction from some ordinary Americans like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake being not just manipulated and exploited, but murdered, hence the need for a Black Lives Matter movement to begin with. It’s a distraction from the fact that we don’t even debate gargantuan national security budgets that now swell annually above a trillion dollars, while no one in a position of power blinks.
Today’s never-ending wars and rumors of more to come remind me that George McGovern was not only against the Vietnam conflict, but the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq, too. Joe Biden, meanwhile, voted for the Iraq War, which Donald Trump also spoke in favor of, then, only to campaign on ending this country’s wars in 2016, even if by 2020 he hadn’t done so — though he had set up a new military service, the Space Force. Feeling the need to sharpen his own pro-war bona fides, Biden recently said he’d raise “defense” spending over and above what even Trump wanted.
If you’ll indulge my fantasy self for a moment, I’d like to channel Lloyd Bentsen, the 1988 Democratic vice presidential nominee who, in a debate with his Republican opposite Dan Quayle, dismissed him as “no Jack Kennedy.” In that same spirit, I’d like to say this to both Trump and Biden in the wake of the recent Covid-19 nightmare of a campaign: “I met George McGovern. George McGovern, in a different reality, could have been my friend. You, Joe and Donald, are no George McGovern.”
Prior military service is not essential to being president and commander-in-chief, but whose finger would you rather have on America’s nuclear button: that of Trump, who dodged the draft with heel spurs; Biden, who dodged the draft with asthma; or a leader like McGovern, who served heroically in combat, a leader who was willing to look for peaceful paths because he knew so intimately the blood-spattered ones of war?
A Historical Tapestry for Fourth Graders as 2020 Ends
What about a class photo for fourth graders today? What collage of images would be behind their heads to represent the promise and chaos of our days? Surely, Covid-19 would be represented, perhaps by a mountain of body bags in portable morgues. Surely, a “Blue Lives Matter” flag would be there canceling out a Black Lives Matter flag. Surely, a drone launching Hellfire missiles, perhaps in Somalia or Yemen or some other distant front in America’s endless war of (not on) terror, would make an appearance.
And here are some others: surely, the flag of China, this time representing the growing tensions, not rapprochement, between the two great powers; surely, a Trump super-spreader rally filled with the unmasked expressing what I like to think of as the all-too-American “ideal” of “live free and die”; surely, a vast firenado rising from California and the West, joined perhaps by a hurricane flag to represent another record-breaking year of such storms, especially on the Gulf Coast; surely, some peaceful protesters being maced or tased or assaulted by heavily armed and unidentified federal agents just because they cared about the lives of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others.
And I suppose we could add something about sports into that collage, maybe an image of football players in empty stadiums, kneeling as one for racial equality. Look, sports used to unite us across race and class lines, but in his woebegone presidency, Donald Trump, among others, used sports only to divide us. Complex racial relations and legacies have been reduced to slogans, Black Lives Matter versus blue lives matter, but what’s ended up being black and blue is America. We’ve beaten ourselves to a pulp and it’s the fight promoters, Donald Trump above all, who have profited most. If we are to make any racial progress in America, that kind of self-inflicted bludgeoning has to end.
And what would be missing from the 2020 collage that was in my 1972 one? Notably, clear references to peace, ecology, and equal rights for women. Assuming that, on January 20th, Joe Biden really does take his place in the Oval Office, despite the angriest and most vengeful man in the world sitting there now, those three issues would be an ideal place for him to start in his first 100 days as president (along, of course, with creating a genuine plan to curb Covid-19): (1) seek peace in Afghanistan and elsewhere by ending America’s disastrous wars; (2) put the planet first and act to abate climate change and preserve all living things; (3) revive the Equal Rights Amendment and treat women with dignity, respect, and justice.
One final image from my fourth-grade collage: an elephant is shown on top of a somewhat flattened donkey. It was meant, of course, to capture Richard Nixon’s resounding victory over George McGovern in 1972. Yet, even with Joe Biden’s victory last week, can we say with any confidence that the donkey is now on top? Certainly not the one of McGovern’s day, given that Biden has already been talking about austerity at home and even higher military spending.
Sadly, it’s long past time to reclaim American idealism and take a stand for a lot less war and a lot more help for the most vulnerable among us, including the very planet itself. How sad that we don’t have a leader like George McGovern in the White House as a daunting new year looms.