A favorite movie of mine is “White Heat” (1949) with James Cagney playing Cody Jarrett, one-time gangster and all-time mama’s boy. In the famous ending to the movie, Cody finally makes it to the “top of the world,” in this case a refinery that explodes around him in a fireball that looks something like a nuclear mushroom cloud.
America’s foreign policy leaders remind me of Cody Jarrett. They want to dominate. They want to be top dog. They want to play king-of-the-hill, like so many bully-boys, and all that matters is making it to the top.
All this came to mind as I read Tom Engelhardt’s latest article at TomDispatch.com. His article reminded me that we as Americans simply don’t like dissent, no matter how well informed, no matter how well intended. In World War I, you weren’t supposed to question a war that President Woodrow Wilson had promised Americans we wouldn’t get involved in. In the 1950s, you weren’t supposed to question virulent anti-communism; you were supposed to salute smartly and demonize all communists everywhere. Today, you’re supposed to hate Putin, distrust the Chinese, and accept fully the idea that the Pentagon is wise to wage a new Cold War that may well end much like the ending of “White Heat.”
Engelhardt’s article salutes dissenters like I.F. “Izzy” Stone, people who are willing to challenge established narratives, to work against demonizing other peoples, to work toward mutual understanding and peace. Indeed, we need more Izzy Stones in America.
These are dangerous times. We’re supposed to go along with wars, with demonizing enemies, with high military spending. Bully-boy rhetoric and tactics are touted as the American way. Our politics is retrograde, our attitude toward the world almost childish, again in a king-of-the-hill way. (America must be king, of course.)
So I fear we may well end up like Cagney at the end of “White Heat.” Our gangster-leaders will shout: “Made it Ma, top of the world!” as the nuclear warheads explode around us.
It’s election time in America, meaning there are plenty of candidates wishing we’d all play the sap for them. Don’t do it. Vote for those you believe in: candidates who are principled and have a record of taking bold stances and of telling the truth. People like Matt Hoh, who’s running for the Senate as a member of the Green Party in North Carolina.
Occasionally, I need to state the obvious, if only to remind myself of the realities of this world. All governments lie and all have their instruments of repression. The most dangerous government is most likely your own government, whatever country you live in, because that governing party has direct power over you, and also because you’re likely to have some allegiance to it, perhaps even some affection for it. As an American, for example, it’s far easier to play the patriot than to act as a dissident. The patriot gets applauded and rewarded; the dissident gets attacked and punished.
The U.S. government, like any other government, lies. Think of the Pentagon papers, the Afghan War papers, the “slam dunk” case of WMD in Iraq that were never found, and so on. All governments lie, as I.F. Stone said.
The message is simple: Always question authority, whether it’s Russian or Chinese or American. Be skeptical. Don’t play the sap. Make Humphrey Bogart proud.
Remember that saying from the Vietnam War era, “Suppose they gave a war and no one came?” Considering present events, we need to modify that. Suppose they kept giving us war after war and no one cared?
It’s remarkable that, even as President Trump expands our military involvement overseas, there is no significant anti-war protest movement in America. Why is this? Perhaps Americans don’t recognize the reality of today’s wars?
Tom Engelhardt has a great article today in which he reflects about World War II, the Vietnam War, and current conflicts around the world. He ends his article with this powerful question:
In many ways, from its founding the United States has been a nation made by wars. The question in this century is: Will its citizenry and its form of government be unmade by them?
The answer to that is “yes,” if we continue largely to ignore them.
Let me give you an example; it may sound trivial, but I think it’s indicative. I just finished watching a seven-part series on HBO, “Big Little Lies.” Set on the Monterey peninsula in California, the series revolved around several sets of mostly affluent, mostly White, parents and the travails of their privileged children. The series did tackle serious issues, especially spousal abuse, and did feature fine acting. What it did not feature was any sense that the U.S. has a military, let alone that America is at war around the world.
Wait a minute, you’re saying. Why should a series featuring mostly affluent adults and their precocious children have said anything about the U.S. military and its wars? Because of the setting. I lived in Monterey for three years while serving as the military dean of students at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center at the Presidio of Monterey. I also taught at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. The U.S. military has a high profile there, but you’d never know it from watching “Big Little Lies.” From that series, you’d think nearly everyone lived in sleek and expensive houses gazing out on the Pacific Ocean. You’d never think that American adults had any concern whatsoever about what their military was up to around the world. And perhaps that’s even true.
One teenager in “Big Little Lies” stirs family controversy by plotting to sell her virginity on the Internet to raise awareness of human trafficking. (She eventually backs down.) Perhaps she might have protested America’s wars instead?
So, why aren’t Americans protesting war? Besides the unreality of these wars to the “Big Little Lies” crowd, here are some reasons that come to mind:
They’re couched as “necessary” wars against terrorism.
Unlike WWII or Vietnam, there’s no draft, hence the wars directly impact only American “volunteers” and their families/friends.
Recent U.S. casualties are much lower than they were from 2004-10 before, during, and after the “surges” in Iraq and Afghanistan, and much lower than in Vietnam. Americans care most when Americans die. Witness the reaction to one Navy SEAL dying in a raid in Yemen. If comparatively few American are dying, we don’t care much.
There is no major anti-war political party in the USA; the Democrats have embraced war as tightly as the Republicans. In short, there’s no strong rallying point against war.
The U.S. military has developed a form of war, based on technologies such as “smart” munitions and drones, that at least to us seems antiseptic and low cost.
American exceptionalism also plays a role, the government/mainstream media spin that Americans always enter wars reluctantly and only to do good.
Fear. And nationalism (America First!) disguised as patriotism.
Another crucial reason: Many if not most Americans are remarkably disconnected from their government and its actions. As Engelhardt wrote in another article (on the legendary journalist I. F. Stone):
What’s missing is any sense of connection to the government, any sense that it’s “ours” or that we the people matter. In its place—and you can thank successive administrations for this—is the deepest sort of pessimism and cynicism about a national security state and war-making machine beyond our control. And why protest what you can’t change?
Engelhardt wrote this in 2015, when Barack Obama was still commander-in-chief. Now we have Trump and his unmerry crew, operating in their own bellicose reality. In 2017 even more Americans are disconnected from the government, which they don’t see as “theirs.” (Meanwhile, those who do see Trump and Crew as “theirs” probably embrace a bellicose approach to foreign policy.)
Disconnecting from government does not mean one should disconnect from its wars. Those wars are being waged in our name; it’s up to us to work to end them.
Afterthoughts: Many Americans think that anti-war protest is somehow against “our” troops. Yet, what could be better for our troops than fewer wars and less fighting? Also, it’s foolhardy to give the U.S. military a blank check when it comes to war. We the people are supposed to control our military, which is why America’s Founders gave Congress the power to declare war and to control the budget. Finally, whether they know it or not, the Pentagon and its generals seriously need push-back from the American people. When I watch Congressional hearings, most of our representatives are at pains to praise the military, instead of challenging it with tough questions.
Our military gets enough kudos! What it needs is serious criticism, not unstinting praise along with buckets of money.