Happy 4th of July! And a Global War on Something

sunset july 2014 061
Author’s photo.

W.J. Astore

I live in a fairly posh area of America.  A place where people have vacation “cottages” with pools, a “destination” place for some, especially in July and August.  July 4th is hopping in these parts, with parties and parades and fireworks and trips to the beach and barbecues.  It’s summer, it’s warm and sunny, it’s time to relax with family and friends and enjoy life.

And then I read headlines like this today (from FP: Foreign Policy): “U.S. Troops in the Thick of it in Mosul and Raqqa.”  And this story about U.S. Marines deploying yet again to Helmand Province in Afghanistan:

Helmand. The commander of 300 Marines newly deployed to Helmand province recently told FP’s Paul McLeary he already has the full authority to get his troops out and about with Afghan troops in the fight. “So far we really haven’t seen much of a need to do it,” said U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Roger Turner, “but if there’s a need to be somewhere we have the authority and capability and capacity to be where we need to be.” 

He also advocated for a larger American footprint, in keeping with reported Pentagon plans to add 3,000 to 5,000 more troops in the coming months. “With a little bit larger force over here we would be in a position to have more flexibility” to do some of the advising he believes would help the Afghan forces push back against two years of Taliban offensives. 

And I think of that “Groundhog Day” movie with Bill Murray in which he repeats the same day, again and again, with only minor changes.  If you’ve seen the movie, Murray finally breaks out of what appears to be an infinite loop only when he changes his ways, his approach to life, his mentality.  He becomes a better person and even gets the girl.

When is the USA going to break out of its infinite loop of war?  Only when we change our culture, our mentality.

A “war on terror” is a forever war, an infinite loop, in which the same place names and similar actions crop up again and again.  Names like Mosul and Helmand province. Actions like reprisals and war crimes and the deaths of innocents, because that is the face of war.

Speaking of war crimes, another report today from FP: Foreign Policy:

[A] new Human Rights Watch report signals trouble ahead: witnesses in Mosul say that “Iraqi forces beat unarmed men and boys fleeing the fighting within the last seven days, and said they also obtained information about Iraqi forces executing unarmed men during this time period.”

When will it end?  Freedom includes freedom from forever war.  Yet Americans continue to be told that the price of freedom is having U.S. troops deployed everywhere — the projection of power in 100+ countries.  And some consider it patriotic to support those commitments without question, since to question it is seen as not supporting the troops. Which is nonsense, since our troops fight, at least in theory, to support and defend the U.S. Constitution, which, among other rights, enshrines freedom of speech and the right to dissent.

Can we contemplate a future Fourth of July in which American troops are no longer stuck in an infinite loop, fighting yet again in the blasted streets of Mosul or on the dusty plains of Helmand province?  A day of independence from war?

That would truly be a day to celebrate with parades, parties, and fireworks.

The Alien Nature of U.S. Military Interventions

Independence_day_movieposter

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I focus on the “alien” nature of U.S. military interventions.  Here are some excerpts from my article:

The latest Independence Day movie, despite earning disastrous reviews, is probably still rumbling its way through a multiplex near you. The basic plot hasn’t changed: ruthless aliens from afar (yet again) invade, seeking to exploit our precious planet while annihilating humanity (something that, to the best of our knowledge, only we are actually capable of). But we humans, in such movies as in reality, are a resilient lot. Enough of the plucky and the lucky emerge from the rubble to organize a counterattack. Despite being outclassed by the aliens’ shockingly superior technology and awe-inspiring arsenal of firepower, humanity finds a way to save the Earth while — you won’t be surprised to know — thoroughly thrashing said aliens.

Remember the original Independence Day from two decades ago? Derivative and predictable it may have been, but it was also a campy spectacle — with Will Smith’s cigar-chomping military pilot, Bill Pullman’s kickass president in a cockpit, and the White House being blown to smithereens by those aliens. That was 1996. The Soviet Union was half-a-decade gone and the U.S. was the planet’s “sole superpower.” Still, who knew that seven years later, on the deck of an aircraft carrier, an all-too-real American president would climb out of a similar cockpit in a flight suit, having essentially just blown part of the Middle East to smithereens, and declare his very own “mission accomplished” moment?

In the aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan and the “shock and awe” assault on Iraq, the never-ending destructiveness of the wars that followed, coupled with the U.S. government’s deployment of deadly robotic drones and special ops units across the globe, alien invasion movies aren’t — at least for me — the campy fun they once were, and not just because the latest of them is louder, dumber, and more cliché-ridden than ever. I suspect that there’s something else at work as well, something that’s barely risen to consciousness here: in these years, we’ve morphed into the planet’s invading aliens.

Think about it. Over the last half-century, whenever and wherever the U.S. military “deploys,” often to underdeveloped towns and villages in places like Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq, it arrives very much in the spirit of those sci-fi aliens. After all, it brings with it dazzlingly destructive futuristic weaponry and high-tech gadgetry of all sorts (known in the military as “force-multipliers”). It then proceeds to build mothership-style bases that are often like American small towns plopped down in a new environment. Nowadays in such lands, American drones patrol the skies (think: the Terminator films), blast walls accented with razor wire and klieg lights provide “force protection” on the ground, and the usual attack helicopters, combat jets, and gunships hover overhead like so many alien craft. To designate targets to wipe out, U.S. forces even use lasers!

In the field, American military officers emerge from high-tech vehicles to bark out commands in a harsh “alien” tongue. (You know: English.) Even as American leaders offer reassuring words to the natives (and to the public in “the homeland”) about the U.S. military being a force for human liberation, the message couldn’t be more unmistakable if you happen to be living in such countries: the “aliens” are here, and they’re planning to take control, weapons loaded and ready to fire.

Other U.S. military officers have noticed this dynamic. In 2004, near Samarra in Iraq’s Salahuddin province, for instance, then-Major Guy Parmeter recalled asking a farmer if he’d “seen any foreign fighters” about. The farmer’s reply was as simple as it was telling: “Yes, you.” Parmeter noted, “You have a bunch of epiphanies over the course of your experience here [in Iraq], and it made me think: How are we perceived, who are we to them?”

Americans may see themselves as liberators, but to the Iraqis and so many other peoples Washington has targeted with its drones, jets, and high-tech weaponry, we are the invaders.

Do you recall what the aliens were after in the first Independence Day movie? Resources. In that film, they were compared to locusts, traveling from planet to planet, stripping them of their valuables while killing their inhabitants. These days, that narrative should sound a lot less alien to us. After all, would Washington have committed itself quite so fully to the Greater Middle East if it hadn’t possessed all that oil so vital to our consumption-driven way of life? That’s what the Carter Doctrine of 1980 was about: it defined the Persian Gulf as a U.S. “vital interest” precisely because, to quote former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz’s apt description of Iraq, it “floats on a sea of oil.”

Consider it an irony of alien disaster movies that they manage to critique U.S. military ambitions vis-à-vis the “primitive” natives of far-off lands (even if none of us and few of the filmmakers know it). Like it or not, as the world’s sole superpower, dependent on advanced technology to implement its global ambitions, the U.S. provides a remarkably good model for the imperial and imperious aliens of our screen life.

Read more at TomDispatch.com.

Noise, Noise, Noise!

United_States_Declaration_of_Independence
Words can be explosive too

W.J. Astore

People who don’t like noise get a bad rap in America. We once had neighbors in Colorado who used to ride off-road dirt bikes up and down the street. Someone complained about the noise and their response was, “Don’t like it? Move. This is America. We have freedom to make all the noise we want.”

Yesterday, my barber was talking about television. He was watching an “entertainment” show in which people were screaming, amplified by explosions, and he just couldn’t abide the noise. But he’s an old fuddy-duddy, like me, right?

When I watch baseball on TV, I keep the “mute” button very close by for the commercials. But even the commentators are getting noisy. Baseball used to be a fairly quiet game with two commentators in the booth, a play-by-play guy and a “color” guy (usually an ex-ballplayer).  Now there are often three people in the booth, with another one (or even two) on the sidelines. They all need to speak, of course, so baseball on TV has become a constant contest of endless chatter featuring mindless statistics.  There’s so much chatter that it’s difficult to hear the crack of a bat or the sound of a fastball smacking a catcher’s mitt.  Then there are the stadiums that feature lots of rock music, sound effects (like smashing glass for a foul ball), horns and pyrotechnics that go off when a player hits a home run, and all those video boards that order the fans to “Make Some Noise!”.

I know — I sound like an old fuddy-duddy again — sort of like the Grinch who stole Christmas because he was tired of all the noise, noise, noise of the Whos in Whoville.  And if the Grinch was bothered by Christmas festivities, just think of how he’d react to July 4th, America’s most pyrotechnic holiday. Prepare for bombs bursting in air, jets screaming overhead, and loud music everywhere.

Just so you know, I’ve been known to pump up the volume on my favorite songs; I’ve thrilled to fireworks exploding in the sky; I’ve watched my share of air shows; I’ve even been at the very front of rock concerts as “security” (I fondly recall a Warren Zevon concert at which I had to arrange the return of a leather coat loaned by a fan to Zevon, who donned it on stage to the delight of the fan).

But you might say those noise events were matters of personal choice.  Lately, noise in America seems pervasive, ubiquitous, almost unavoidable.  And noise isn’t simply about volume: it’s about persistence.  It’s about invasiveness.  Think of people who chatter away on Smart phones even as they’re out for a quiet walk along the beach or in the woods. How can you hear the waves or the birds if you’re screaming into a phone? Bits and pieces of conversations I’ve overheard are not about emergencies or even pressing matters; it’s more like, “Guess where I am?  I’m at the beach/concert/top of the mountain!”  Followed by selfies and postings and more calls or texts.

With all these forms of noise, it’s difficult to be in the moment.  It’s even difficult to find a moment.  Also, even in quiet times, people feel pressured to fill the silence with, well, something.  So unaccustomed to quiet are they that they reach for their Smart phones (perhaps to play a noisy video game), or they turn on the TV, or they chatter away even when they have nothing to say. Must avoid “uncomfortable” silences, so we’ve been told.

Part of this is cultural.  Today’s Americans are not about reflection; we’re about action. We’re not thinkers; we’re doers.  If I rest I rust is our motto.  Together with, Don’t just stand there — do something!  Preferably, something loud, splashy, noisy.

July 4th is a great holiday, but along with the fireworks and noise, perhaps we should celebrate the reflective thinkers of America, people like Thomas Jefferson who put the words to the noise of the American revolution in the Declaration of Independence. The quiet sound of a quill pen dipping in ink and scratching across parchment made a very big noise indeed in U.S. and World history.

Trump Fourth of July

This weekend, it wouldn’t hurt to put down or turn off the mowers, blowers, fireworks, Smart phones, TVs, and all the rest of our noisemakers and listen to the birds and waves while reading a few passages from that Declaration of Independence.  For the right words can be explosive too.

Happy Fourth of July

Old Glory as the sun sets
Old Glory as the sun sets

W.J. Astore

It’s good to have a day like the Fourth of July, a day to celebrate the promise of our country, and a day to reflect on our blessings.  It should be an apolitical day, a day to be with loved ones, and a day to remember how lucky we are, even if it’s not always good times for everyone.

I took a few photos at dusk the other day on Cape Cod.  They’re a reminder to me of the blessings of nature, and also that we share our land in common: that this land is your land, my land, for you and me.  Let’s share it together.

Sunset near Keveney Bridge
Sunset near Keveney Bridge

I hope you enjoy these photos.  Happy Fourth!

Calm and Serene
Calm and Serene
A path to the salt marsh
A path to the salt marsh
Another shot of Old Glory -- from sea to shining sea
Another shot of Old Glory — from sea to shining sea

 

Why We Celebrate July 4th

Long may it wave as a symbol of freedom.  Photo in Maine, 2006, by the author
Long may it wave as a symbol of freedom. Photo in Maine, 2006, by the author

We celebrate July 4th with a lot of hoopla.  Flag-waving parades.  Backyard barbecues with beer and laughter.  Fireworks.  Good times.

We celebrate the creation of a new country, a new ideal, in 1776.  It was a country that rejected hereditary aristocracies, that called for equal rights for (most) men, that endeavored to create a new and better order for the ages.

Naturally, in an effort this ambitious, involving so many men with differing ideas and ideals, the end result was flawed.  Native Americans were ruthlessly killed or shunted aside.  Slavery remained the original sin of the young republic, a stain partially erased by the Civil War but one whose legacy still dims the brightness of America’s lamp of liberty.

Today the USA remains decidedly imperfect.  That is why we must continue to strive to form a more perfect union, one which protects the rights of the weak against the depredations of the strong.  In this sense the revolution is never over.

As we reflect on the meaning of July 4th, our day of independence, we should recognize that independence is not a day simply to be celebrated.  Rather, it is a legacy that others have fought and died for, one we must continue to earn — and one we must continue to cherish and protect.

Just as the founders of this country fought against the tyrants of the 18th century, we must be on guard against the tyrants of the 21st century.  They may not be kings named George sending their mercenaries to quarter among and fight against us.  Today’s tyrants–today’s power-seekers and liberty-limiters–may even claim to be super-patriots who are protecting us from harm, even as they work to limit our rights while feasting on the plenty that still defines America.

But we know better.  We know what is best about America.  And on July 4th, we celebrate it.

America’s thirst for freedom — may it never be quenched.  May it always endure.

W.J. Astore