It sure is hard to give peace a chance in America, as recent events with Russia and Ukraine show. The Washington consensus is all about weapons and more weapons, of economic sanctions, i.e. economic warfare, of not being seen as a pitiful helpless giant, as Richard Nixon once said during the Vietnam War. America can never stand on the sidelines, even when its national security interests aren’t even threatened. Something must be done, something forceful, something involving troops and weapons and ultimatums that could very well escalate into disaster.
Revealingly, Washington insiders always talk of “all options” being on a metaphorical table, meaning the most violent ones, including war, for the president to choose from. They lie. Because the one option that’s never on that imaginary table is peace.
Peacemakers might be the children of God, but perhaps America is more godless than it knows. Or maybe it just worships the god of war, a Pentagod. It’s discouraging to face the obstacles to peace in America, because these obstacles are not going to be removed just by singing songs and writing articles or even by protesting. What is truly needed is a mass movement against war, as we saw during the Vietnam War years, but even that mass movement took years to have an impact. And it was motivated as well by resistance to the draft, which no longer exists.
A short list of the obstacles to peace is sobering indeed:
The power of the military-industrial-congressional complex. It doesn’t want to get smaller or less powerful. It thrives off weaponry and wars. It has no interest in peace.
The mainstream media. It’s owned by major corporations and advances corporate agendas. It smears antiwar voices as naive (at best) and often as traitorous and/or weak. Antiwar voices simply aren’t heard on the MSM. Instead, retired colonels and generals, as well as senior ex-CIA officials, are put forward as unbiased voices of reason as they promote the most hawkish lines.
The absence of a draft. Let’s face it: the youth of America are much more likely to resist war if they have to risk their lives. But America has an “all volunteer force,” and if these volunteers are sent off to war, that’s what they signed up for. Right?
American culture in general is suffused with violence and misinformed about the world, especially America’s imperial role in it. Myths about American exceptionalism and beliefs about the troops as freedom-fighters serve to inhibit antiwar criticism and protests.
The difficulty of launching any kind of sustained protest nowadays. Ready to gather in the streets to march against war? Sorry, do you have a permit? Covid restrictions may prevent you from gathering. And maybe we’ll move you to a special “free speech” zone, which I assure you will be far away from media cameras. What good is protesting if you gain no traction because few people see you and the media ignores you?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it’s impossible to give peace a chance. Just that it’s very difficult, given the power structures of our society and our collective national ethos. It’s mind-boggling that America has so many agencies for “defense” and “intelligence.” We have the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security (a domestic mini-Pentagon), something like 17 intelligence agencies like the CIA and NSA, the list goes on. State and local police forces are now heavily militarized and generally unsympathetic to your right to assemble and to protest vigorously. Get a job, commie peacenik!
Meanwhile, society’s heroes are U.S. military troops, or the “thin blue line” of police that “protect and serve.” Those who are committed to peace are generally not viewed as heroes, at least not by society at large. Again, Christ may have seen peacemakers as God’s children, but in the U.S. there’s a preference (judging by gun sales) for Colt Peacemakers.
How to overcome these obstacles to truly give peace a chance is perhaps the most pressing issue of our age, given the risk of war going nuclear and ending most life on our planet. Readers, I don’t have easy answers, but I’d begin with Ike’s warning about the military-industrial complex in 1961, JFK’s peace speech in 1963, MLK’s speech against the Vietnam War on April 4th, 1967, perhaps even John Lennon’s song “Imagine.”
How do we imagine — and then create — a new reality that favors peace instead of war? How do we pursue a just and lasting peace with ourselves and with all nations that Abraham Lincoln spoke of near the end of the U.S. Civil War?
The words are there. The vision is there. Tapping the nobility of Lincoln, Ike, JFK, and MLK and their antiwar messages is possible. Isn’t it?
As JFK said in his “peace speech,” to believe that war is inevitable is a “dangerous defeatist belief.” I’m with JFK.
I came across this quotation yesterday: “I am worried about the state of the readiness of the nuclear triad,” Deputy SecDef nominee Kath Hicks tells the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning, “and, if confirmed, that is an area I would want to get my team in place and start to look at right away.”
The U.S. military plans to spend well over a trillion dollars over the next thirty years to “modernize” the nuclear triad of land-based ICBMs, nuclear-capable bombers, and sub-launched ballistic missiles. Long ago, I remember reading (from December 1982) that Charles Bennet, a Democratic Congressman, had said “The triad is not the Trinity.” But the Pentagon treats it as if it is a (un)Holy Trinity, shoveling money to build even more nuclear weapons to devastate and destroy humanity. I don’t use the concept of evil lightly, but I can’t think of policies much more evil than developing yet more genocidal weaponry at enormous cost.
We desperately need new thinking in America, which is why I wrote the following article for TomDispatch. Maybe some of these are pipe dreams; then again, maybe we should all be smoking peace pipes more often.
The Power of America’s Example
When it comes to war, if personnel is policy, America is yet again in deep trouble.
As retired Army Major Danny Sjursen recently pointed out at TomDispatch, when it comes to foreign policy, President Joe Biden’s new cabinet and advisers are well stocked with retired generals, reconstituted neocons, unapologetic hawks, and similar war enthusiasts. Biden himself has taken to asking God to protect the troops whenever he makes a major speech. (How about protecting them by bringing them home from our pointless wars?) “Defense” spending, as war spending is generally known in this country, remains at record levels at $740.5 billion for fiscal year 2021. Talk of a new cold war with Russia or China (or both) paradoxically warms Pentagon offices and corridors with yet more funds. The only visible dove of peace at Biden’s inaugural was the giant golden brooch worn by Lady Gaga. So what exactly is to be done?
Peace-driven progressive policies will not emerge easily from the rainbow kettle of hawks Biden has so far assembled, but his inaugural speech did mention leading and inspiring others globally “not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.” It would have been an apt rhetorical flourish indeed, if not for this country’s “forever wars” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa. America’s harsh war-fighting reality suggests that “the example of our power” still remains standard operating procedure inside the Washington Beltway. How could this possibly be changed?
I have a few ideas for Biden — a 10-point plan, in fact, for turning his softball rhetoric into hardball reality. Consider, Mr. President, the following powerful examples you could set as America’s latest commander-in-chief:
1. Stop the U.S. from building new generations of nuclear weapons and downsize the vast existing American arsenal, while launching global negotiations to work toward the elimination of all such arsenals. The U.S. military is set to spend well over a trillion dollars in the coming decades to “modernize” its nuclear triad of bombers and land-based and submarine-launched missiles. Such a staggering “investment” can only move the world closer to nuclear Armageddon. If America is to lead by example when it comes to the ultimate power on this planet, why not begin by cancelling this trillion-dollar-nightmare as part of a new global anti-nuclear initiative? Why not commit us, long term, to the elimination of all nuclear weapons everywhere, while moving to adopt a “no-first-use” policy?
2. When it comes to President Biden’s commitment to slow climate change and clean up the environment, why not do something in military terms? America’s armed forces have an enormous appetite for fossil fuels. The Pentagon also has a sordid record when it comes to the poisoning of the environment. (Consider the legacy of Agent Orange in Vietnam, or the military’s burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the birth defects and severe health problems that were linked to the munitions its forces used in assaulting the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004.) If the president wants to set an example when it comes to demilitarizing this over-armed, over-polluted planet of ours, reducing both the military’s fossil-fuel emissions and its poisonous munitions would be a powerful way to start.
3. End this century’s forever wars and radically downsize this country’s unprecedented global network of military bases. Driving the colossal size of today’s military is what my old service, the Air Force, likes to call its “global reach, global power” mission. At least in theory, that mission, in turn, helps justify the sprawling network of 800 or so overseas bases, a network that costs more than $100 billion a year to maintain. Such bases not only consume resources needed here in the U.S. and help stoke those forever wars, but they present high-value targets to opponents and incite ill-feeling and resistance from “host” countries. So, downsizing that global base structure would be an act of peace — and fiscal sanity.
4. Make major cuts in the country’s war budget. Fewer bases and fewer or no wars should translate into a far lower defense budget. Somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 billion annually to defend this country and cover its real “national security” interests seems reasonable for the self-styled lone superpower. The money saved (roughly $340 billion based on this year’s budget) could then perhaps be partly rebated directly to American families in need in this pandemic. Perhaps every American family earning less than $50,000 a year could see a rebate on their taxes directly attributable to downsizing that budget and America’s imperial footprint overseas. Taking a page from Donald Trump, President Biden, as America’s thrifty and giving commander-in-chief, could even have his name put on those rebate checks. Call it a long-delayed peace dividend. Regular Americans, after all, need such “dividends” far more than giant defense contractors like Boeing or Raytheon. And don’t get me started on the need to invest in rebuilding this nation’s infrastructure at a moment when the extremities associated with climate change threaten to devastate parts of the country.
5. Create a Department of Peace (here’s looking at you, Dennis Kucinich) with influence at least approaching that of the so-called Department of Defense. Currently, the U.S. military is all about power projection, domination of the global battlespace, and similar buzzwords that add up to exporting violence abroad, special op by special op, drone by drone. You are what you do and the U.S. military does permanent war with plenty of “collateral damage.” (Picture mutilated black and brown bodies and flattened and poisoned cities and towns.) If the U.S. government can create a Space Force just to fulfill the fantasies of Donald Trump, then why not a peace force, too? (America’s current, humble Peace Corps asked for $401 million for Fiscal Year 2021, roughly the cost of four underperforming F-35 jet fighters.) Peace, much like war, doesn’t just happen. You have to work at it — and that would be precisely the mission of the Department of Peace.
6.Pay attention, for once, to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address and exert rigorous oversight and zealous control over the military-industrial complex. That means ending the 2001 AUMF, the authorization for use of military force that Congress passed in a climate of panic and revenge in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (though it was only to be against those associated in some fashion with those terror attacks), and the second one Congress authorized in 2002 in preparation for the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. They have been misused and abused by presidents ever since. Furthermore, end any conflict that hasn’t been authorized by a direct Congressional declaration of war. That means withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa. America’s security is not, in fact, directly threatened by those countries. As a self-declared democracy, the United States should set an example by not fighting wars disconnected from the people’s will and the true needs of national defense.
7. And speaking of President Eisenhower, America needs to embrace his lesson that military spending represents a theft from Americans who are hungry, sick, and need help. For its “national security,” this country needs more hospitals, better education, safer food, a cleaner environment, and, most of all, clean water and fresh air. Eisenhower knew that warships and warplanes were simply not the answer to the American people’s real and pressing needs.
8. Reject threat inflation, including the heightening talk of a “new cold war” with Russia or China or of an ongoing “generational” war on terror. Eliminate talk of a new Red Menace, of likely wars with Iran or North Korea, or of America’s backwardness in cyberwarfare research and development. Terrorism is nothing new and will always be with us in one form or another (including, vis-a-vis the Capitol on January 6th, domestic terrorism). Indeed, since war is terror, a war on terror should truly be considered an oxymoron. Terrorist acts are mostly the recourse of the weak when taking on the strong. The United States isn’t going to stop them by getting stronger yet. Nor are China and Russia about to invade this country. (This isn’t Red Dawn.) Iran is not coming to impose Sharia law and North Korea is not about to launch nukes against us. As for cyber-attacks, don’t worry: no matter what you’ve heard, no country does cyberwarfare better than the U.S.A.
9. End the practice of foreign aid taking the form of military aid. When taxpayers give aid to foreign countries, it should be in the form of food, medicine, and other essentials, not cluster bombs, F-16s, and Hellfire missiles.
10. Learn from Abraham Lincoln. In President Biden’s recent Inaugural Address, as a call to national unity, he made reference to Lincoln’s initial inaugural appeal to “the better angels of our nature.” But he should have focused on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, the finest speech ever given by any president. As Lincoln put it then, when it came to ending the American Civil War:
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Lincoln was unafraid of speaking of and seeking a just and lasting peace. In this century, until at least the Trump years, Americans often heard their leaders speak of this nation’s “exceptional” nature. What could be more exceptional, more laudable, than seeking a lasting global peace?
Biden, like me, is Roman Catholic. My Catholic bible (Matthew 5:9) tells me that Christ said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Instead of beseeching God to protect the troops that American presidents have continually sent into harm’s way, Joe Biden might ask for blessings for America’s peace activists. To echo Lincoln again, that would indeed be a case of right making might, instead of the might-making-right vision that a militaristic America has grown far too comfortable with.
An Alert and Knowledgeable Citizenry
So long ago, President Eisenhower spoke of the importance of having an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry.” Isn’t it time for mainstream media outlets to foster real, critical, investigative journalism that would truly inform those very citizens about America’s wanton military spending and endless wars, while providing educators with crucial material to teach their students about the horrific costs of militarism? This country needs to free its collective mind from the prevailing forever-war narrative. To paraphrase Crosby, Stills, and Nash, if we teach the children well, perhaps they won’t repeat their father’s hell.
In his song “Imagine,” John Lennon asked us all to imagine a different world and said that it’s easy if you try. Lennon got the first and most important part right, but the second part sadly doesn’t apply, at least to this country in this century. Nowadays, Americans are so immersed in a culture driven by war, profit, and exploitation that it’s no longer easy to imagine anything but war. If Americans truly paid attention to war, up close and as personal as they could get, they’d begin to grasp the folly and wickedness of it and so perhaps relinquish what I’ve come to think of as their prisoner-of-war mentality in relation to it. They might actually begin breaking down mental barriers to peace.
Don’t count on Congress doing it, though. Congress is incestuously part of what should be renamed the military-industrial-congressional complex. Don’t count on the military doing it either. Its most senior men and women have been carefully selected, groomed, and promoted because they believe in the system, which includes incessant lobbying for more weaponry and exaggerating the threats to this country to get it. They exist to wage war; the rest of us should be willing to fight for peace.
Change, if and when it comes, will have to be driven by people like us.
It won’t be easy, but it is necessary for America’s survival. And it’s unlikely to come without campaign finance reform and the public funding of elections. In a “pay-to-play” oligarchy disguised as a democracy, the giant weapons-making corporations simply pay much more than you do and so speak through megaphones, leaving you with a dead mic. Unless the corporate dominance of our politics is curtailed, ordinary Americans will continue to be outshouted and overwhelmed by the bellicose and the greedy, leaving the country forever at war.
It won’t be easy to work for peace, but it sure is worth the try. It sure as hell beats the alternative of guns, bombs, and missiles being produced like so many sausages in a militaristic country that ever more resembles George Orwell’s nightmarish image of the future as “a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”
America’s new president has called for us to lead with the power of our example rather than just the example of our power. I can’t think of anything more exemplary and powerful than a strong commitment to making war no more.
Remember when those who advocated for peace were dismissed as “dreamers”? The great John Lennon imagined a world where peace could reign, and he wasn’t afraid of the dreamer label, because he knew it could be more than a dream. Peace is often presented as a fantasy embraced by soft-hearted people. War, by comparison, is a harsh reality embraced by hard-headed realists, or so we’re told.
What if it’s the opposite? What if peace is really based on pragmatism, and war on fantasy? What if the hard-headed realists are really those who advocate for peace via dialog, diplomacy, treaties, and the like? And it’s the warmongers who are truly the soft-headed dreamers?
Consider the results of recent American wars. The wars in Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) were total disasters. Ditto interventions in Iraq and Libya. The Afghan War approaches its third decade with no end in sight. How are these wars pragmatic or preemptive or necessary or productive? They’ve been based on fears and fantasies. They’ve been colossal mistakes based on lies and fantasies of power.
Indeed, it’s the neocons who have been America’s leading fantasists, starting disastrous wars driven by an ideology of American exceptionalism and warrior masculinity in which they believe they can create and control their own reality irrespective of history and the facts. These men can’t imagine peace. All they can imagine is a world in which American military power creates a world “safe for democracy,” which means safe for their own greed and power and profit, including profit from more and more weapons sales.
We see this fantasy at work today. Somehow, starting wars is sold as a way to prevent them. Killing a senior Iranian general in a foreign country without the approval of that country or Congress for that matter is sold as preventing war. The president commits an act of war in the name of peace.
To believe this, you must be a fantasist in the extreme. We need to denounce these pro-war fantasists for what they are. They may fancy themselves as hard-headed men of action, but they’re really thick-headed sociopaths guided by delusional fantasies.
Update (1/5): Speaking of pro-war fantasists, I just saw this Trump tweet, which is what happens when you elect and empower a bully-boy as president:
“The United States just spent Two Trillion Dollars on Military Equipment. We are the biggest and by far the BEST in the World! If Iran attacks an American Base, or any American, we will be sending some of that brand new beautiful equipment their way…and without hesitation!”
For most Americans, patriotism means love of country. But I’d like to suggest this “love” is misplaced for three reasons. First, I’d like to suggest that “country” is an imaginary construct. Two, I’d like to show how patriotism is misused and abused by the powerful, most infamously by President Donald Trump. And three, I’d like to suggest a new form of patriotism, the love of the tangible, and by this I mean our fellow human beings.
“Country” as an imaginary construct
“Imagine there’s no countries,” John Lennon wrote nearly fifty years ago. Generally, citizens of a given country insist they love their nation. But can one truly “love America,” or any other country or nation? For that matter can you love any state, city, town, or sports team?
In general semantics, a branch of linguistics which is itself a branch of philosophy, the word is not the thing, the map is not the territory. Canada, France, the Red Sox are only names, concepts, phenomena of consciousness. Or a neurological system in the brain if you adhere to the Western materialist worldview.
Think about it: You can’t see, touch, feel, hear, or taste “France.” But you can taste a French pastry made in “France” and see and touch the Eiffel Tower. ”Vive La France” does not mean that French people collectively are going to live a long life. In fact, the concept of France vanishes if there are no longer any human beings left after, say, France is devastated by a massive nuclear attack.
Now, one can literally love the beauty of the land that comprises the legal territory of a given country. I love the mountains and the deserts of the Western U.S., the woods of northern Maine, the seacoasts of California. I love Fourth of July celebrations, the fireworks and cookouts. I even love the old Frank Sinatra song, “The House I Live In” because it names things in America that you can put your hands on, such as the line “the ‘howdy’ and the handshake.” And then the concluding lyric, “that’s America to me.” (Notice there is no insinuation there is an America out there, only the symbolic meaning of the phrase.)
Love of country, in short, is nonsensical because a country, a nation, is an abstraction, a conceptual phenomenon, a byproduct of mental processes, that has no existence in the material universe. Perhaps Lennon’s dream of “imagine there’s no countries” will only become reality when we no longer perceive people as enemies or opponents merely because they live elsewhere or look different.
The misuse and abuse of patriotism
Politicians and journalists tend to affirm, for obvious reasons, that it’s important to state how much you love America. Not to do so could easily result in your career or ambitions heading south. Still, proclaiming your love of country, whatever country that is, all too often has undesirable and destructive consequences. For instance, it becomes easier to support a government taking the country to war. Or colossal military budgets in the name of “defending” the “country.”
To an unreflective patriot the country is not seen as the sum of its parts but as a reality sui generis, perhaps symbolized by a father figure like Uncle Sam.
If I can make a sweeping generalization, among rural chauvinists “country” is part of the “God, Country, and Guns” trinity. This idea is well captured by the Merle Haggard song from 1970 that “When they’re runnin’ down our country, man/They’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.”
President Trump’s recent call for members of the so-called squad, the four progressive Congresswomen of color, to “go back” to where they came from (a takeoff of “love it or leave it”) is one step away from “I will hurt you if I see you again.” Obviously, there is no place natural-born U.S. citizens can go back to. And even if they were not citizens by birth, why should they have to leave after having become U.S. citizens? Trump’s “patriotism” is racist nationalism – and shamelessly so.
Patriotism, in the narrow Trumpian usage of that word, demands opponents, sides, an “us versus them” mentality. And that’s a mentality calculated for division, distraction, and destruction.
We humans can’t see national borders from space, but we do see our planet. Our real “homeland.” Nevertheless, the false choice of “America: love it or leave it” has recently been revived from the days when protesters against the Vietnam War were denounced as unpatriotic. In truth, they were performing the most patriotic act imaginable, if patriotism is properly defined as love of one’s fellow human beings. In that sense, real patriotism is humanitarianism. It’s focused on humans and the home where we live, not on constructs that are insensible.
False patriotism may remain “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” as Samuel Johnson, the 18th century British social philosopher, observed. Even so, a literal belief in “my country, right or wrong” could still do us all in some sunny day. A dangerous myth, indeed.