What Is True National Security?

general-zod-kneel
He promises safety and security.  You just have to kneel.

W.J. Astore

What is true national security?  Recent answers to this question focus on the U.S. military, Homeland Security, various intelligence agencies, and the like.  The “threat” is usually defined as foreign terrorists, primarily of the Islamist variety; marauding immigrants, mainly of the Mexican variety; and cyber hackers, often of the Russian variety.  To “secure” the homeland, to make us “safe,” the U.S. government spends in the neighborhood of $750 billion, each and every year, on the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and intelligence agencies such as the CIA and NSA (and there are roughly 15 more agencies after those two goliaths).

But what makes people truly secure?  How about a living wage, decent health care, and quality education?  Affordable housing?  Some time off to decompress, to pursue one’s hobbies, to connect with family and friends, to continue to grow as a human being?  Water without lead, air without toxins, land without poisons?

These thoughts came to me as I read the usual anodyne statement put out by Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, nominated as President Trump’s new National Security Adviser.  “The safety of the American people and the security of the American homeland are our top priorities,” McMaster said in his statement.

I agree that safety and security are important, but I wouldn’t place them as America’s top priorities, even in the realm of national defense.  Our top priority is supporting and defending the U.S. Constitution, including all those rights and freedoms that are often threatened in nervous and excitable times.  Institutions like the press, freedoms like the right to assemble and protest, the right to individual privacy, and the like.

When the powerful threaten those freedoms, as President Trump is doing by denouncing the press as the enemy of the people, that very act is a bigger threat to national security than ISIS or illegal immigrants or Russian hackers or what-have-you.

Security is not just about weapons and warriors and killing terrorists and other “bad hombres,” and safety is not just about guarding your money and property or even your person from physical harm.  Safety and security draw their strength from our Constitution, our communities, and our societal institutions, not only those that catch and punish criminals, but those that enlighten us, those that make us better, those that enrich our souls.

In the USA, we have a very narrow and negative definition of safety and security.  It’s a definition that’s been increasingly militarized, much like our government, over the last few decades.

We’d be wise to broaden and deepen our view of what security and safety really mean; we’d be especially wise not to allow leaders like Donald Trump to define them for us.  In their minds, security and safety mean doing what you’re told while shutting up and paying your taxes.

Kneeling before General Zod (to cite Superman for a moment) or indeed any other leader is not what I call safety and security.

Update: Just after I wrote this, I saw these two headlines from today: “Trump on deportations: ‘It’s a military operation,'” and “Trump adviser Bannon assails media at CPAC: Of media coverage of Trump, Steve Bannon said: ‘It’s not only not going to get better — it’s going to get worse every day… they’re corporatist, globalist media.'”

There you have it: militarization (at least of rhetoric) and scapegoating of the media before the fact.  Judge Trump, Bannon, and Co. by their deeds, but also by their words.

Update 2: Last night, a PBS report noted that the USA, with less than 5% of the world’s population, accounts for 80% of opioid prescriptions.  The overuse of powerful and addictive painkillers points to serious problems in national morale.  Even as many Americans have poor access to health care or overpay for it, America itself is awash in prescription drugs, many of them either highly expensive or highly addictive, or both. This reliance on prescription drugs is a sign of a complex communal malaise, yet the government seems most focused on policing the use of marijuana, which is now legal in many states.

America: Land of Extremes

superman
He said he fought for truth, justice, and the American way.  Why does that seem so much more far-fetched today?

W.J. Astore

This is an Andy Rooney moment for me, but did you ever notice how Americans tend to favor either humongous trophy houses (McMansions), or closet-like tiny houses?  Did you ever notice how so many Americans tend to be either very fat or super fit?  Crusading evangelicals or militant atheists?  Faithful believers in creationism or fervid followers of science?  Proud “cave man” carnivores or proselytizing vegans?  Coffee fiends or caffeine avoiders?  Lushes or teetotalers?   Materialists and hoarders or declutterers and minimalists?

The list of opposites, of extremes, goes on.  Heck, why not include Obama supporters or Trump followers?  Obama is urbane, sophisticated, cerebral, “no drama.”  A devoted family man with one very successful marriage.  The Donald?  Well, let’s just say he’s very different than our sitting president.  And I’m not talking skin color.

A good friend of mine once complained about his fellow Americans that he didn’t necessarily mind their extremism.  What he did mind was their efforts to convert him to whatever extreme causes they believed in.  Rodney King famously asked, Can’t we all just get along?  My friend’s cry was more plaintive: Can’t you all just leave me alone?

As Trump crawls closer to power, America risks devolving even more into a society where the byword is “My way or the highway.”  Where the national motto is no longer “In God we trust” or the older “E pluribus unum” (out of many, one) but instead “America: love it or leave it.”

I once read a great rejoinder to the “America: love it or leave it” sentiment.  I first saw it in a bicycle repair book.  The author simply added this coda: “Or change it.”

Extremism in the pursuit of your own selfish definition of “liberty” can indeed be a vice, America.  We need to reject a black/white, love/hate, on/off, Manichean view of each other and the world.  Moderation as a way of pursuing a more inclusive and compassionate world can indeed be a virtue.

That doesn’t mean one submits supinely to injustice.  That doesn’t mean one surrenders meekly to tyrants.  What it does mean is a rejection of a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach to life and each other.  We have enough polarization already in America, and we certainly have enough death.

Superman used to say he fought for truth, justice, and the American way.  There was a sense, a few generations ago, that those words were not laughable.  That they meant something.  We need to get back to those times.

Impossible, you say?  We won’t know unless we try.

The USA No Longer Sees Freedom and Liberty as Core Strengths

liberty-tree1
Why are we so intent on chopping it down?

W.J. Astore

In the crusade against Communism, otherwise known as the Cold War, the U.S. saw “freedom” as its core strength.  Our liberties were contrasted with the repression of our chief rival, the USSR.  We drew strength from the idea that our system of government, which empowered people whose individualism was guided by ethics based on shared values, would ultimately prevail over godless centralism and state-enforced conformity.  An important sign of this was our belief in citizen-soldiers rather than warriors, and a military controlled by democratically-elected civilians rather than by dictators and strong men.

Of course, U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War could be amoral or immoral, and ethics were often shunted aside in the name of Realpolitik.  Even so, morality was nevertheless treated as important, and so too were ethics.  They weren’t dismissed out of hand.

Fast forward to today.  We no longer see “freedom” as a core U.S. strength.  Instead, too many of us see freedom as a weakness.  In the name of defeating radical Islamic terrorism, we’ve become more repressive, even within the USA itself.  Obedience and conformity are embraced instead of individualism and liberty.  In place of citizen-soldiers, professional warriors are now celebrated and the military is given the lion’s share of federal resources without debate.  Trump, a CEO rather than a statesman, exacerbates this trend as he surrounds himself with generals while promising to obliterate enemies and to revive torture.

In short, we’ve increasingly come to see a core national strength (liberty, individualism, openness to others) as a weakness.  Thus, America’s new crusades no longer have the ethical underpinnings (however fragile they often proved) of the Cold War.  Yes, the Cold War was often unethical, but as Tom Engelhardt notes at TomDispatch.com today, the dirty work was largely covert, i.e. we were in some sense embarrassed by it.  Contrast this to today, where the new ethos is that America needs to go hard, to embrace the dark side, to torture and kill, all done more or less openly and proudly.

Along with this open and proud embrace of the dark side, America has come increasingly to reject science.  During the Cold War, science and democracy advanced together.  Indeed, the superior record of American science vis-à-vis that of the Soviet Union was considered proof of the strength and value of democracy.  Today, that is no longer the case in America.  Science is increasingly questioned; evidence is dismissed as if it’s irrelevant.  “Inconvenient truths” are no longer recognized as inconvenient — they’re simply rejected as untrue.  Consider the astonishing fact that we have a president-elect who’s suggested climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China.

Yesterday, I saw the following comment online, a comment that summed up the new American ethos: “Evidence and facts are for losers.”  After all, President-elect Trump promised America we’d win again.  Let’s not let facts get in the way of “victory.”

That’s what a close-minded crusader says.  That the truth doesn’t matter.  All that matters is belief and faith.  Obey or suffer the consequences.

Where liberty is eroded and scientific evidence is denied, you don’t have democracy.  You have something meaner.  And dumber.  Something like autocracy, kleptocracy, idiocracy.  And tyranny.

Liberty First: What an Old Coin Can Teach Us

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My dad’s half dime

W.J. Astore

When I was a kid, I was a stamp collector.  My dad, in contrast, saved old coins.  He was not a collector; he didn’t file them away in special folders. He just tossed old silver coins into a cigar box.

My favorite coin of his was also the oldest one he had: a “half dime” from 1845.  To me, it’s a remarkably simple and aesthetically pleasing design, featuring a seated figure of “Liberty” on the obverse, with the words “Half Dime” on the reverse.

half dime

Note what’s missing: the words “In God We Trust.”  This motto was not added to coins until the national trauma of the U.S. Civil War reinforced religious revivals that had preceded that war.  It made its first appearance in 1864.  (Interestingly, in the “Pledge of Allegiance,” the words “under God” were added only in 1954 during another crisis, the fear of communism stoked by McCarthyism during the Cold War.)

As a nation it seems we invoke God during crises, calling on Him for support and guidance and blessing.

But I want to return to my dad’s half dime from 1845, because that coin, in its simplicity, enshrines a value that is most fundamental to our country: Liberty.

With respect to religion, liberty to me means the freedom to worship God in one’s own way, to include the freedom not to worship God, even the freedom to express disbelief in God.

Such liberty was extremely rare in the 18th century when our nation was founded.  Back then, being labeled an “atheist” was roughly equivalent to being labeled a “terrorist” today.  But our nation’s founders were of diverse religious persuasions, to include Catholics and Quakers as well as myriad branches of “dissenting” Protestantism.  A few were deists (Thomas Jefferson most famously) who rejected the Trinitarian Christianity of most of their peers, and a small number (Thomas Paine, perhaps) were skeptics to the point of atheism.

What united them was a belief in liberty.  In religion, this was expressed as the freedom to worship in any way you chose, or not to worship at all.  Thus there was no religious “test” for office, no requirement to be a Christian or to express a belief that “In God We Trust.”

That profound belief in personal freedom — in liberty first — is captured on my dad’s old coin.  It’s also captured in the Pledge of Allegiance before 1954: “one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”

In today’s political climate, with all of our public prayers and calls to God to bless America, with talk of Muslims not being allowed to hold office because their god is somehow the wrong god, we need to recall that America was founded on Liberty first.

Or as my mom put it in her inimitable way, “You worry about your soul and I’ll worry about mine.”  Jefferson and Paine would have liked my mom.

 

President Obama’s Speech on Terror

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W.J. Astore

My wife and I watched the president’s speech last night.  Overall, it was a solid, even praiseworthy, performance.  First, we had to get past the NBC pre-speech fear-mongering.  Lester Holt and Chuck Todd, the NBC commentators, were talking about how afraid Americans were, hinting that we all feared our holiday parties would be invaded by active shooters bent on murder.  My wife and I looked at each other.  Are you fearful, honey?  Neither am I.

President Obama himself made many good points.  Yes, we shouldn’t vilify Muslim-Americans or condemn all of Islam.  Yes, we shouldn’t commit major ground forces to the Middle East to chase ISIL terrorists. Yes, we need sane gun control measures in the USA.  Nobody needs an AK-47 or AR-15 (these are not hunting guns: they are military assault rifles designed to kill people).  And nobody needs the right to buy a gun if they’re on a “no fly” list as a possible terror threat.

These were “common sense” points, and it pains me to think the president has to belabor what should be obvious.  But he does.  Because the National Rifle Association wants no restrictions on gun ownership, and the radical right does want to vilify Muslims, commit large numbers of U.S. ground troops to the Middle East, and extend a regimen of militarized surveillance and security at home that will make us even less safe.

Where President Obama consistently disappoints is what he leaves unsaid. That the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq essentially created ISIL; and that his policy of overthrowing the Syrian government by arming indigenous Arab forces contributed to it (according to Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, formerly head of the Defense Intelligence Agency). That his strategy of drone assassination (so-called signature strikes that are often based on faulty intelligence) is creating more terrorists than it kills, as several military drone operators have recently argued.

Defenders of the U.S. drone assassination program argue that it’s not the intent of the U.S. government to kill innocents, therefore the U.S. is free from blame.  Try telling that to those who have lost loved ones to drones.  (So sorry: We didn’t mean to kill your mother/brother/loved one. Wrong place/wrong time: an explanation as infuriating as it is unconvincing.)

President Obama concluded by arguing that he needed even more of a blank check (in the form of a Congressional authorization) to prosecute the war on terror.  All in the name of keeping Americans safe, naturally. But he has it exactly backwards.  Congress needs to exercise more oversight, not less.  Imagine giving President Donald Trump a Congressional blank check to exercise the war on terror.  Not such a good idea, right?

Finally, and disappointingly, Obama misunderstands the solemn duty of his office.  As commander in chief, Obama believes his first duty is to keep Americans safe and secure.  Wrong.  His first duty is to “preserve, protect and defend” the U.S. Constitution and the rights, freedoms, and responsibilities defined within.  Put bluntly, you can’t keep Americans safe and secure by abridging their rights to freedom of speech or to privacy or to dissent.  “Safety” and “security” were not the bywords of America’s founders.  Liberty was.  And liberty entails risks.

A saying popular on the right is Thomas Jefferson’s “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”  In the USA today, “tyranny” is most likely to come in the form of a leader who promises to keep us safe and secure at any cost.  (Just look at the Republican candidates for president with their calls for Muslim detention camps, mass expulsion of immigrants, the shuttering of houses of worship, and similar measures of repression.)

The president was right to argue that we must not betray our values.  He was right to talk about human dignity.  He was right to say that freedom is more powerful than fear.  Now we as Americans need to live up to those words.  And so does he.

 

 

Martial Virtue: Promise and Peril

It's unwise to worship without question the god of war (Worcester Art Museum, image of Ares)
It’s unwise to worship without question the god of war (Worcester Art Museum, image of Ares)

W.J. Astore

Ever since the attacks of 9/11/2001, the United States has actively celebrated martial virtue.  We’ve portrayed our troops as heroes.  Presidents have celebrated them as the best led and best trained and most effective military in all of human history.  To question the wisdom of such hagiographic portrayals is to be dismissed as ungenerous and un-American.  Just ask the journalist Chris Hayes.

But the hard truth is that martial virtue is consistent both with republican freedoms and with imperial or despotic agendas, to include the suppression of freedom.

History teaches us that martial virtues (such as they are) are readily enlisted or perverted to serve imperial or even fascist regimes.  Sparta celebrated military virtues even as they lived off of slavery and exposed the “weak” to death.  The Romans, in ruthlessly pursuing an empire, created deserts and called them “peace,” to quote Tacitus, one of the great historians of Rome.  Both under the Kaiser and under Hitler, Germany elevated martial virtues and waged two utterly devastating wars.

This is not to say that martial service can’t be ennobling.  Organizing and fighting for what’s right is commendable.  To cite just one example, think of the Jews who organized to resist the Nazis during World War II.  Jewish partisans fought for a cause, for freedom from murderous oppression, a fight in which they found their “treasure,” the treasure of pure acts of will.  In Hannah Arendt’s words (which she applied to the French resistance), “they had become ‘challengers,’ had taken the initiative upon themselves and therefore, without knowing or even noticing it, had begun to create that public space between themselves where freedom could appear.”

During World War II, Jewish (and other) resisters tapped the nobility of martial service, carving out public spaces where decisions were made freely for the purpose of defeating a regime dedicated to their destruction.  Under these conditions, martial virtue upheld freedom.

Martial virtue, in other words, is not an oxymoron.

Did martial virtue help to make “the greatest generation” in America?  No.  It was the events that came before World War II, not the war itself, that “made” this generation.  My dad, born in 1917, had to endure the Great Depression, had to serve in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the mid-1930s, had to work long hours in the factory prior to the war, to support the family.  From this he learned the value of hard work and the reality that life often isn’t fair.  His service in the Army during the war was a duty he performed to the best of his ability, but it was largely what he and his generation endured before the war, and the nation they built after the war, that made them “great.”

American troops during World War II were citizen-soldiers.  Unseduced by Mars, the god of war, most of them endured the degradations of war without becoming degraded themselves.  You can’t say the same of the German Wehrmacht or the Soviet Army. 

And there’s the rub.  Martial service is also consistent with totalitarian states.  Indeed, such states take pains to celebrate the military in order to co-opt its honorable qualities for disreputable ends.  Military service loses its nobility as it is monopolized by the state in the name of furthering anti-democratic agendas.

All of this is to say that the celebration of martial virtue is powerful — and powerfully dangerous.  It may be consistent with protecting freedom, but so too may it be consistent with denying freedom.

Our nation’s founders knew this when they created a small “standing” military, placing it firmly under the control of Congress and a civilian commander-in-chief, augmented by state militias under the control of governors.  Founders like James Madison warned us of the dangers of perpetual war and its corrosive impact on democratic principles.  They were wise to do so.

And we would be wise to heed their counsel.  We would be wise not to celebrate a military setting as being uniquely suited to creating “heroes.”  And we would also be wise not to embrace martial qualities as being uniquely virtuous.

America is not exceptional when we commit to martial virtues; America is exceptional when we commit ourselves to liberty.

“American Fascism”: Accurate or Misleading?

Has an Iron Heel already come to the USA?
Is it already here in the USA?

recent article by John Pilger in the British Guardian speaks of a silent military coup that has effectively gained control of American policymaking. It features the following alarmist passage:

In 2008, while his liberal devotees dried their eyes, Obama accepted the entire Pentagon of his predecessor, George Bush: its wars and war crimes. As the constitution is replaced by an emerging police state, those who destroyed Iraq with shock and awe, piled up the rubble in Afghanistan and reduced Libya to a Hobbesian nightmare, are ascendant across the US administration … The historian Norman Pollack calls this “liberal fascism”: “For goose-steppers substitute the seemingly more innocuous militarisation of the total culture. And for the bombastic leader, we have the reformer manqué, blithely at work, planning and executing assassination, smiling all the while.” Every Tuesday the “humanitarian” Obama personally oversees a worldwide terror network of drones that “bugsplat” people, their rescuers and mourners. In the west’s comfort zones, the first black leader of the land of slavery still feels good, as if his very existence represents a social advance, regardless of his trail of blood. This obeisance to a symbol has all but destroyed the US anti-war movement — Obama’s singular achievement.

Strong words. Is America the land of “liberal fascism”?

Certainly, since the attacks of 9/11 the U.S. has become more authoritarian, more militarized, and less free (witness the Patriot Act, NSA spying, and the assassination of American citizens overseas by drones). The U.S. Supreme Court has empowered corporations and the government at the expense of individual citizens. Powerful banks and corporations reap the benefits of American productivity and of special tax breaks and incentives available only to them, even as average American citizens struggle desperately to keep their heads above water.

But to describe this as “fascism” is misleading. It’s also debilitating and demoralizing.

It’s misleading because fascism has a specific historical meaning. The best definition I’ve seen is from the historian Robert Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism

For Paxton, fascism is:

A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

In formulating this definition, Paxton had Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy in mind, but his definition is an excellent starting point in thinking about fascism.

What about it? Is the U.S. fascistic? Plainly, no. We don’t have a messiah-like dictator. Our justice system still works, however imperfectly. Our votes still count, even if our political speech often gets drowned out by moneyed interests.

It’s true that, in the name of “support our troops,” we grant the Pentagon brass and defense contractors too much leeway, and allow our Department of Defense to seek “global power” without reflecting that such ambitions are the stuff of totalitarian states. But let’s also recall that our troops (as well as our representatives) still swear an oath to the Constitution, not to a dictator or party.

It’s also true that, as a society, we are too violent, too attracted to violence (think of our TV/Cable shows, our video games, and our sports), and too willing to relinquish individual liberties in the name of protecting us from that violence and the fear generated by it. Yet Americans are also increasingly weary and skeptical of the use of military force, as recent events involving Syria have shown.

The point is not to despair, not to surrender to the demoralizing idea that American politics is an exercise in liberal fascism. No — the point is to exercise our rights, because that is the best way to retain them.

Authority always wants more authority. But as political actors, we deny by our actions the very idea of fascism. For in fascist societies, people are merely subjects, merely tools, in the service of the state.

Don’t be a tool. Be an actor. Speak up. Get involved. Work to make your imperfect republic a little more representative of the better angels of our nature. Because it’ll be your deeds that keep our country from falling prey to fear and violence and the authoritarian mindset they breed.

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.  This article is also at Huffington Post.