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.
The best way to combat disinformation is with more and better information. Censorship isn’t the answer.
The Biden administration has reached a different conclusion, creating a “Disinformation Governance Board” under the Department of Homeland Security. This “board” is headed by Nina Jankowicz, an unelected official and an apparent partisan hack. One example: she dismissed the infamous Hunter Biden laptop story as a “fairy tale” involving a “laptop repair shop”; it’s now been confirmed that Hunter’s laptop was real, and so too was that repair shop.
Democrats, of course, don’t have exclusive rights to censorship. Republicans always seem to be calling for books to be banned or education to be policed. But the real problem is much larger than partisan hackery and bickering. Efforts at censorship are all around us, couched as a way of protecting us from harmful lies and other forms of disinformation. Yet, as the comedian Jimmy Dore points out, the government isn’t that concerned about protecting you from lies; it is, however, deeply concerned with denying you access to certain truths, truths that undermine governmental authority and the dominant narrative.
As a retired U.S. military officer and as a historian, the most insidious lies and disinformation I’ve encountered have come from the government. Consider the lies revealed by Daniel Ellsberg and his leak of the Pentagon Papers. Consider the war crimes revealed by Chelsea Manning, aided by Julian Assange and Wikileaks. Consider the lies revealed in the recent Afghan War Papers. Consider the lies about the presence of WMD in Iraq, lies that were used to justify the disastrous Iraq War. The government, in short, is a center of lies and disinformation, which is precisely why we need an adversarial media, one that is willing to ferret out truth. Instead, we’re being offered a governmental Ministry of Truth in the form of a “Disinformation Governance Board.”
All things being equal, a democratic society thrives best when speech is as free as possible, trusting in the people to sort fact from fiction, and sound theories from blatant propaganda. And there’s the rub: trusting in the people. Because the government doesn’t trust us (remember Hillary Clinton’s comment about all those irredeemable deplorables), even as the government is often at pains to mislead and misinform us. As maverick journalist I.F. “Izzy” Stone said, all governments lie. It’s truly nonsensical, then, to allow the government to police what is true and what is “disinformation.”
But don’t we need some censorship in the name of safety or security or mental health or whatever? Sorry: censorship is rarely about safety, and it most certainly doesn’t serve the needs of the vulnerable. Instead, it serves the needs of the powerful, those who already possess the loudest megaphones in the public square.
But doesn’t someone like Donald Trump deserve to be censored because he spreads disinformation? Which is the bigger problem: Trump or censorship? I happen to think Trump is a divisive con man, but it was a bad precedent for Twitter to have banned him from tweeting. The bigger problem wasn’t Trump’s tweets but the media’s obsessive coverage of them in pursuit of ratings. The way to combat a blowhard like Trump is to ignore him, and to correct him when needed. To combat his lies with the truth. We don’t need a governmental Ministry of Truth to police the tweets of a former president. Not when the government is often the biggest liar.
The solution isn’t censorship but an active, engaged, and informed citizenry, assisted by a fourth estate, the press, that is truly independent and adversarial to power. But the weakening of education in America, combined with a fourth estate that is deeply compromised by the powerful and often in bed with the government, means that these democratic checks on power are less and less effective. Hence calls for quick yet dangerous “solutions” like censorship, where the censors (governmental boards, private corporations) are opaque and almost completely unaccountable to the people.
Unless your goal is to give the already powerful a monopoly on speech, censorship is not the answer.
Readers, my memory here is a bit fuzzy, so please bear with me.
When I was at the Air Force Academy in the late 1990s, a British diplomat came to speak on Anglo-American policies and activities in the Middle East. A controversial subject was the “No-Fly” zone enforced by the U.S. Air Force as well as sanctions against Iraq, with the stated goal of encouraging the Iraqi people to overthrow Saddam Hussein. That overthrow never happened; instead, the U.S. military had to invade in 2003 with “shock and awe,” leading to war, insurgency, and torture that truly was shocking and awful.
I recall asking a question of the diplomat, a younger guy, slick and polished, probably a product of Oxbridge (and I had recently earned my D.Phil. from Oxford, so I knew the type). The gist of my question was this: Why are we continuing with sanctions when they appear not to be hurting Saddam but only ordinary people in Iraq?
The diplomat smoothly ignored the tenor of my question and instead praised Anglo-American resolve and cooperation in the struggle against Saddam and similar bad actors in the Middle East. I was nonplussed but I didn’t push the matter. I was in a classroom with a couple of dozen other AF officers and we were all supposed to be on the same team.
This all came back to me today as I listened to Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor at The Gray Zone. He recalled a British major asking similar questions of similar diplomats, but the British major went much further than I had in challenging the BS he was being fed. COL Macgregor quotes this major as saying the following in response:
If our cause is just, why do we have to lie about it?
Those words should be seared in the minds of all Americans at this perilous moment. I wish I’d had the clarity of mind and the confidence to say something similar, but I recall thinking that maybe I just didn’t know enough about what was going on in Iraq.
Of course, Madeleine Albright, asked on “60 Minutes” if the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children due to sanctions was a price worth paying for Saddam’s eventual downfall, readily replied that yes, she believed this price was worth paying.
Her sociopathic calculation didn’t even work; only a massive U.S. invasion finally toppled Saddam, leading to yet more chaos and mass death in Iraq.
We need to stop lying to ourselves that America’s policies are generally noble and just or even morally defensible or forced upon us by a harsh and cruel world. In fact, perhaps that harsh and cruel world is exactly the one we’ve created for ourselves — and for so many others as well.
Americans may already be lying themselves out of what little remains of their democracy.
The big lie uniting and motivating today’s Republicans is, of course, that Donald Trump, not Joe Biden, won the 2020 presidential election. Other big lies in our recent past include the notion that climate change is nothing but a Chinese hoax, that Russia was responsible for Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat in 2016, and that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was necessary because that country’s leader, Saddam Hussein, had something to do with the 9/11 attacks (he didn’t!) and possessed weapons of mass destruction that could be used against the United States, a “slam dunk” truth, according to then-CIA Director George Tenet (it wasn’t!).
Those and other lies, large and small, along with systemic corruption in Washington are precisely why so many Americans have been driven to despair. Small wonder that, in 2016, those “deplorables” reached out in desperation to a figure who wasn’t a product of Washington’s mendacious Beltway culture. Desperate times engender desperate acts, including anointing a failed casino owner and consummate con man as America’s MAGA-cap-wearing savior. As the 45th president, Donald Trump set a record for lies that will likely remain unmatchable in its “greatness” — or so we must hope anyway.
Sadly, Americans have become remarkably tolerant of comfortable lies, generally preferring them to uncomfortable truths. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the military realm that I’ve inhabited most of my life. The first casualty of war, so it’s said, is truth, and since this country has remained perennially at war, we continue to eternally torture the truth as well.
When it comes to war, here are just a few of our all-American falsehoods: that this country is slow to anger because we prefer peace, even if wars are often necessary, which is also why peace-loving America must have the world’s “finest” and by far the most expensive military on the planet; that just such a military is also a unique force for freedom on Planet Earth; that it fights selflessly “to liberate the oppressed” (a Special Forces motto) but never to advance imperial or otherwise selfish ambitions.
For a superpower that loves to flex its military muscles, such lies are essentially par for the course. Think of them, in fact, as government-issue (GI) lies. As a historian looking to the future, what worries me more are two truly insidious lies that, in the early 1930s, led to the collapse of a fledgling democracy in Weimar Germany, lies that in their own way helped to facilitate the Holocaust and that, under the right (that is, wrong) circumstances, could become ours as well. What were those two lies?
Germany’s Tragic Lies After World War I
During World War I, the German military attempted to defeat the combined forces of Britain, France, Russia, and later the United States, among other powers, while simultaneously being “shackled to a corpse,” as one German general described his country’s main ally, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the middle of 1916, the German Second Reich led by Kaiser Wilhelm II had, in essence, become a military dictatorship devoted to total victory at any cost.
Two years later, that same military had been driven to exhaustion by its commanders. When it was on the verge of collapse, its generals washed their hands of responsibility and allowed the politicians to sue for peace. But even before the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918, certain reactionary elements within the country were already rehearsing two big and related lies that would facilitate the rise of a demagogue and the onset of an even more disastrous world war.
The first big lie was that the German military, then considered the world’s finest (sound familiar?), emerged from World War I undefeated in the field, its troops a band of heroes covered in glory. That lie was tenable because Germany itself had not been invaded in World War I; the worst fighting took place in France, Belgium, and Russia. It was also tenable because its military leaders had lied to the people about the progress being made toward “victory.” (This should again sound familiar to contemporary American ears.) So, when those senior leaders finally threw in the towel in late 1918, it came as a shock to most Germans, who’d been fed a steady diet of “progress,” while news of serious setbacks on the Western Front was suppressed.
The second big lie followed from the first. For if one accepted the “undefeated in the field” myth, as so many Germans did, then who was responsible for the defeat of the world’s finest military? Not Germany’s generals, of course. Indeed, in 1919, led by Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, those same generals would maliciously claim that disloyal elements on the home front — an enemy within — had conspired to betray the country’s heroic troops. Thus was born the “stab-in-the-back” myth that placed the blame on traitors from within, while ever so conveniently displacing it from the Kaiser and his generals.
Who, then, were Germany’s backstabbers? The usual suspects were rounded up: mainly socialists, Marxists, anti-militarists, pacifists, and war profiteers of a certain sort (but not weapons makers like the Krupp Family). Soon enough, Germany’s Jews would be fingered as well by gutter-inhabitants like Adolf Hitler, since they had allegedly shirked their duty to serve in the ranks. This was yet another easy-to-disprove lie, but all too many Germans, desperate for scapegoats and undoubtedly bigoted as well, proved eager to believe such lies.
Those two big and insidious falsehoods led to an almost total lack of accountability in Weimar Germany for militarists like Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff who were significantly responsible for the country’s defeat. Such lies fed the anger and fattened the grievances of the German people, creating fertile ground for yet more grievous lies. In a climate of fear driven by the massive economic dislocation brought on by the Great Depression of 1929, a previously fringe figure found his voice and his audience. Those two big lies served to empower Hitler and, not surprisingly, he began promoting both a military revival and calls for revenge against the backstabbing “November criminals” who had allegedly betrayed Germany. Hitler’s lies were readily embraced in part because they fell on well-prepared ears.
Of course, a mature democracy like America could never produce a leader remotely like a Hitler or a militaristic empire bent on world domination. Right?
To read the rest of my article for TomDispatch.com, please click here. Thanks!
Note: In writing my book on Paul von Hindenburg, I was greatly helped by Dennis Showalter, a wonderful historian and a better friend. Dennis was remarkably generous to me and to so many other students of history. Dennis died at the end of 2019, and I miss his keen mind, his exceptional scholarship, but most of all his warmth and sense of humor. We joked that our work on Hindenburg represented a rare “bipartisan” collaboration between a Yankees fan (that’s him) and a Red Sox fan (that’s me). Thanks for everything, Dennis.
Remember when Trump said he wanted a military parade on the streets of Washington, D.C.? Looks like his dream’s come true, as the streets of Washington are filled with troops in preparation for Biden’s inauguration.
Biden’s message is supposed to stress “unity.” But unity for what? For single-payer universal health care? For an end to wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere? For much higher wages for workers? For a Green New Deal? “Unity” for “normalcy” is empty rhetoric of the worst kind. We need unity for policies that help the most vulnerable among us.
Republicans play to and favor their base. Democrats demobilize and betray their base.
Those rioters who stormed the Capitol — are they all lost causes? What would have happened if Obama had actually been a Progressive in 2008? What would have happened if Sanders had run against Trump in 2016? What I mean is this: Trump is offering a vision (even though it’s a lie) to his followers that mobilizes them. They want to “take back America,” but for the wrong reasons. What if Obama or Sanders (or someone like them) had offered a Progressive vision to “take back America”? But of course any meaningful economic reforms are blocked by the owners and donors of both parties, hence protest and its energy can be seized and directed in dark channels by charlatans like Trump.
Remember the old days when rulers — at risk of being killed or captured — led their troops into combat? And, if they refused to lead, were dismissed as cowards? We’re not living in those days.
Trump is the kind of schoolyard bully who instigates a fight but then stands on the sidelines, cheering and sneering until the teacher comes, after which he smirks and says, “It wasn’t me.”
I know 74 million Americans voted for Trump. But not all of them voted for all of the Trump circus. Many Republicans and Democrats are tribal voters — they’ll vote for their candidate no matter who he is and what he’s done. And I don’t blame all Trump voters for sticking with him when I consider the alternative choice of Joe Biden, a career pol who failed so miserably when he ran for president back in 1988 that he became a laughingstock in his own party.
I can only hope that Biden has learned something since 1988, when he stole speeches from Neil Kinnock and Bobby Kennedy and bragged he graduated near the top of his class on a full scholarship while winning a political science award. Fact is, he graduated near the bottom of his class on a half scholarship and won no such award. He also boasted about his IQ. He further falsely claimed to have participated in civil rights demonstrations and activism in the 1960s. (Bernie Sanders, by contrast, was arrested for his civil rights activism in the 1960s.)
More recently, Biden falsely claimed he’d been arrested while trying to see Nelson Mandela. In short, “alternative facts” won’t die when Trump leaves office.
All this is to say that Joe Biden is a typical politician, only more so. As Jimmy Dore says, politicians are not your friends; they are supposed to be public servants. It’s up to us to hold them to account, not to cheer for them. And if the Democratic party refuses to serve the people — as it likely will — a third party may be the only alternative.
Investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, physicist Richard Feynman reached a famous conclusion: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”
The COVID-19 virus is not going to be fooled with lies. It’s not going to be fooled by a denial of medical science. You can’t “spin” the virus away with false information and happy talk. And this is precisely why President Trump (and indeed many other politicians) is uniquely unqualified to handle this crisis.
Trump is the man who sold us a fake university. Trump is the man who’s lied roughly 13 times a day since becoming president. Trump is a fantasist, a fabulist, a con man, a used car salesman, a huckster, an entertainer, take your pick. And he’s good at it. It’s a skill that got him to the White House. But it’s not a skill that works against the coronavirus.
The other day, I was listening to an interview with Noam Chomsky, and he made the point that Trump is a master propagandist. His skill is his shamelessness and sheer extent of his lying. Trump floods the market with lies, so much so that many people, and especially those sympathetic to him, lose the ability to tell truth from lies, fact from fiction. Politically, this helps Trump; but in meeting this medical crisis, it’s a skill that may cost America tens of thousands of lives, and, in worst-case scenarios, perhaps a million or more.
Living by the light of lies is a surefire way to get burned. Last night, I was reading Norman Mailer and came across this invaluable insight:
“Fascism is not a way of life but a murderous mode of deadening reality by smothering it with lies.”
The more lies we tell, the more we open ourselves to fascism. Mailer uses the word meretricious, which combines vulgarity with falseness and insincerity, and he proceeds to denounce our culture, our art, as sickening us because of its ugly dishonesty. (And Mailer was saying this in the early 1960s!)
Again, lies will not defeat COVID-19; they will only speed its spread through America. Lies will only kill us while smothering democracy.
Feynman was right: “Nature cannot be fooled.” So too was Mailer: As a leader, if you think you can deaden the reality of a pandemic with lies, you’re not thinking at all. You’re acting murderously instead.
Update (3/25): Our Dear Leader has decreed America will be open for business again by Easter. Don’t worry: the final decision will be based “on facts.”
They really felt they needed to add that coda: based on facts. And they did, because most of the Trump presidency has been based on lies.
Maybe my title should have been “The Coronavirus Feeds on Lies.” And we are giving it plenty to feed on.
Update (3/26): If America reopens by Easter with crowded churches and the like, prepare for lots of dead people, as this article and graph show (courtesy of the New York Times):
In the South Carolina primary won on Saturday by Joe Biden, Tulsi Gabbard earned only 1.3% of the vote. Her poor showing was due in part to her outcast status among the Democratic establishment joined by mainstream media outlets like MSNBC and CNN. Speaking of CNN, I caught a few minutes of coverage last night during which its commentators confessed they couldn’t understand why Tulsi was still running. (Update: See my comment below for more details on this exchange.) One person (Anderson Cooper, the weasel) suggested she was angling for a job with Fox News. Of course, Tulsi’s principled opposition to regime-change wars and other disastrous U.S. foreign policy decisions went unmentioned. When her name is mentioned by the corporate-owned media, it’s usually in the context of the candidate most likely to succeed – in Russia.
By running in the election, Tulsi Gabbard continues to make an invaluable contribution: She highlights the power of the military-industrial-Congressional-media complex and its rejection of any candidate willing to challenge it. Gabbard’s status as a major in the Hawaii Army National Guard, her service in Congress on the House Armed Services Committee, her military deployments to Iraq: all of this is downplayed or dismissed. Meanwhile, Mayor Pete’s brief stint in Afghanistan is celebrated as the height of military service. What’s the difference between them? Mayor Pete plays ball with big donors and parrots talking points of the Complex – Tulsi doesn’t.
In a recent op-ed for The Hill, Tulsi yet again does America a service by calling out red baiting in America’s elections. Here’s how her op-ed begins:
Reckless claims by anonymous intelligence officials that Russia is “helping” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are deeply irresponsible. So was former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s calculated decision Tuesday to repeat this unsubstantiated accusation on the debate stage in South Carolina. Enough is enough. I am calling on all presidential candidates to stop playing these dangerous political games and immediately condemn any interference in our elections by out-of-control intelligence agencies.
A “news article” published last week in The Washington Post, which set off yet another manufactured media firestorm, alleges that the goal of Russia is to trick people into criticizing establishment Democrats. This is a laughably obvious ploy to stifle legitimate criticism and cast aspersions on Americans who are rightly skeptical of the powerful forces exerting control over the primary election process. We are told the aim of Russia is to “sow division,” but the aim of corporate media and self-serving politicians pushing this narrative is clearly to sow division of their own — by generating baseless suspicion against the Sanders campaign.
Tulsi is right here – and she’s right when she says that:
The American people have the right to know this information in order to put Russia’s alleged “interference” into proper perspective. It is a mystery why the Intelligence Community would want to hide these details from us. Instead it is relying on highly dubious and vague insinuations filtered through its preferred media outlets, which seem designed to create a panic rather than actually inform the public about a genuine threat.
All this does is undermine voters’ trust in our elections, which is what we are constantly told is the goal of Russia.
She also accurately notes how the “corporate media will do everything they can to turn the general election into a contest of who is going to be ‘tougher’ on Russia. This tactic is necessary to propagandize the American people into shelling over their hard-earned tax dollars to the Pentagon to fund the highly lucrative nuclear arms race that the military-industrial complex craves.”
Tulsi Gabbard may not be in the democratic race much longer, but that’s not because she lacks guts. Indeed, her willingness to buck the system – and her commitment to making the world a less militaristic place – make her a notable candidate. She’s been a noble voice crying in a corrupt and self-serving wilderness.
You know an American war is going poorly when the lies come swiftly, as with the Afghan War, or when it’s hidden under a cloak of secrecy, which is also increasingly true of the Afghan War.
This is nothing new, of course. Perhaps the best book I read in 2019 is H. Bruce Franklin’s Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War. Franklin, who served in the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s before becoming an English professor, cultural historian, and an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, is devastating in his critique of the military-industrial complex in this memoir. I recommend it highly to all Americans who want to wrestle with tough truths.
Let’s consider one example: Franklin’s dismissal of the “stab-in-the-back” myth (or Rambo myth) that came out of the Vietnam War. This was the idea the U.S. military could have won in Vietnam, and was indeed close to winning, only to be betrayed by weak-kneed politicians and the anti-war movement.
Franklin demolishes this argument in a paragraph that is worth reading again and again:
One widespread cultural fantasy about the Vietnam War blames the antiwar movement for forcing the military to “fight with one arm tied behind its back.” But this belief stands reality on its head. The American people, disgusted and angry about the Korean War, were in no mood to support a war in Vietnam. Staunch domestic opposition kept Washington from going in overtly. So it went covertly. It thereby committed itself to a policy based on deception, sneaking around, and hiding its actions from the American people. The U.S. government thus created the internal nemesis of its own war: the antiwar movement. That movement was inspired and empowered not just by our outrage against the war [but] also by the lies about the war, lies necessitated by the war, coming from our government and propagated by the media. Although it was the Vietnamese who defeated the United States, ultimately it was the antiwar movement, especially within the armed forces, that finally in 1973 forced Washington to accept, at long last, the terms of the 1954 Geneva Accords, and to sign a peace treaty that included, word for word, every major demand made by the National Liberation Front (the so-called Viet Cong) back in 1969…
The truth was that for three decades our nation had sponsored and then waged a genocidal war against a people and a nation that had never done anything to us except ask for our friendship and support [during and after World War II].
This is well and strongly put. The American people had no interest in intervening in Vietnam in the 1950s; the Korean debacle had been enough. But the U.S. government intervened anyway, lying about its involvement until it could no longer lie. Then a bigger lie was concocted, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, to justify a larger commitment of troops in the mid-1960s, which led to near-genocidal destruction in Vietnam.
Wars built on lies are rarely won, especially in a democracy. But even as they are lost (Vietnam in the 1960s, and now Afghanistan), there are always “winners.” Weapons contractors and other war profiteers. The Pentagon, which from war gains more money and more power. And authoritarian elements within society itself, which are reinforced by war.
If we wish to take our democracy back, a powerful first step is to end all American wars overseas. This would not be isolationism; this would be sanity.
Wars, secrecy, and lies are three big enemies of democracy. Maybe the big three. War suppresses thought and supports authoritarianism. Secrecy prevents accountability. Lies mislead the people. And that’s what we have today. Constant warfare. Secrecy, e.g. reports on “progress” in the Afghan War are now classified and no longer shared. Lies are rampant; indeed, lies are policy. Just look at the Afghan Papers.
Yet wars, secrecy, and lies have been incredibly successful. The Pentagon budget is booming! Weapons sales are exploding! No one is being held accountable for failures or war crimes. Indeed, convicted war criminals are absolved and touted as heroes by the president.
The solution is as obvious as it will be painful. We need peace, transparency, and truth. End the wars, declassify all those “secrets” we the people should know about our military and wars, and reward truth-tellers instead of punishing them.
Ten years ago, President Barack Obama decided to “surge” in the Afghan War. The previous year he had run for the presidency on the idea of Iraq being the “bad” war but Afghanistan as the “good” war. Good as in “winnable” and as countering terrorism. But Obama’s surge in Afghanistan was a flop, even as American leaders tried to sell it as buying breathing space for the evolution of freer, more stable, Afghan government.
A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.
Surprise, surprise! Sadly, the lies were obvious a decade ago, as I wrote about at TomDispatch.com in April of 2009. Here’s my article from that time. Remarkably, despite or rather because of all the lies, the war continues still, with no end in sight.
Mary McCarthy in Vietnam, Barack Obama in Afghanistan
Seven Lessons and Many Questions for the President
By William Astore (April 2009)
In 1967, outraged by the course of the Vietnam War, as well as her country’s role in prolonging and worsening it, Mary McCarthy, novelist, memoirist, and author of the bestseller The Group, went to Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam, to judge the situation for herself. The next year, she went to the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. She wrote accounts of both journeys, published originally in pamphlet format as Vietnam (1967) and Hanoi (1968), and later gathered with her other writings on Vietnam as a book, The Seventeenth Degree (1974). As pamphlets, McCarthy’s accounts sold poorly and passed into obscurity; deservedly so, some would say.
Those who’d say this, however, would be wrong. McCarthy brought a novelist’s keen eye to America’s activities and its rhetoric in Vietnam. By no means a military expert, not even an expert on Vietnam — she only made a conscious decision to study the war in Vietnam after she returned from her trip to Saigon — her impressionistic writings were nevertheless insightful precisely because she had long been a critical thinker beholden to no authority.
Her insights into our approach to war-fighting and to foreign cultures are as telling today as they were 40 years ago, so much so that President Obama and his advisors might do well to add her unconventional lessons to their all-too-conventional thinking on our spreading war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
What were those lessons? Here are seven of them, each followed by questions that, four decades later, someone at President Obama’s next press conference should consider asking him:
1. McCarthy’s most fundamental objection was to the way, in Vietnam, the U.S. government decided to apply “technology and a superior power to a political situation that will not yield to this.” At the very least, the United States was guilty of folly, but McCarthy went further. She condemned our technocentric and hegemonic form of warfare as “wicked” because of its “absolute indifference to the cost in human lives” to the Vietnamese people.
Even in 1967, the widespread, at times indiscriminate, nature of American killing was well known. For example, U.S. planes dropped roughly 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia during the war, nearly five times the tonnage used against Germany during World War II. The U.S. even waged war on the Vietnamese jungle and forest, which so effectively hid Vietnamese guerrilla forces, spraying roughly 20 million gallons of toxic herbicides (including the dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange) on it.
In her outrage, McCarthy dared to compare the seeming indifference of many of her fellow citizens toward the blunt-edged sword of technological destruction we had loosed on Vietnam to the moral obtuseness of ordinary Germans under Adolf Hitler.
Questions for President Obama: Aren’t we once again relying on the destructive power of technology to “solve” complex political and religious struggles? Aren’t we yet again showing indifference to the human costs of war, especially when borne by non-Americans? Even though we’re using far fewer bombs in the Af-Pak highlands than we did in Vietnam, aren’t we still morally culpable when these “precision-guided munitions” miss their targets and instead claim innocents, or hit suspected “terrorists” who suddenly morph into wedding parties? In those cases, do we not seek false comfort in the phrase, C’est la guerre, or at least that modern equivalent: unavoidable collateral damage?
2. As Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968 by calling for “peace with honor” in Vietnam, McCarthy offered her own warning about the dangers that arose when the office of the presidency collided with an American desire never to be labeled a loser: “The American so-called free-enterprise system, highly competitive, investment-conscious, expansionist, repels a loser policy by instinctive defense movements centering in the ganglia of the presidency. No matter what direction the incumbent, as candidate, was pointing in, he slowly pivots once he assumes office.”
Questions for President Obama: Have you, like Vietnam-era presidents, pivoted toward yet another surge simply to avoid the label of “loser” in Afghanistan? And if the cost of victory (however defined) is hundreds, or even thousands, more American military casualties, hundreds of billions of additional dollars spent, and extensive collateral damage and blowback, will this “victory” not be a pyrrhic one, achieved at a price so dear as to be indistinguishable from defeat?
3. Though critical of the U.S. military in Vietnam, McCarthy was even more critical of American civilian officials there. “On the whole,” she wrote, they “behaved like a team of promoters with a dubious ‘growth’ stock they were brokering.” At least military men were often more forthright than the civilians, if not necessarily more self-aware, McCarthy noted, because they were part of the war — the product, so to speak — not its salesmen.
Questions for President Obama: In promising to send a new “surge” of State Department personnel and other civilians into Afghanistan, are you prepared as well to parse their words? Are you braced in case they sell you a false bill of goods, even if the sellers themselves, in their eagerness to speak fairy tales to power, continually ignore the Fantasyland nature of their tale?
4. Well before Bush administration officials boasted about creating their own reality and new “facts on the ground” in Iraq, Mary McCarthy recognized the danger of another type of “fact”: “The more troops and matériel committed to Vietnam, the more retreat appears to be cut off — not by an enemy, but by our own numbers. To call for withdrawal in the face of that commitment… is to seem to argue not against a policy, but against facts, which by their very nature are unanswerable.”
Questions for President Obama: If your surge in Afghanistan fails, will you be able to de-escalate as quickly as you escalated? Or will the fact that you’ve put more troops in harm’s way (with all their equipment and all the money that will go into new base and airfield and road construction), and committed more of your prestige to prevailing, make it even harder to consider leaving?
5. A cursory reading of The Pentagon Papers, the famously secret government documents on Vietnam leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg, reveals how skeptical America’s top officials were, early on, in pursuing a military solution to the situation in South Vietnam. Nevertheless, knowing better, the “best and brightest,” as journalist David Halberstam termed them in his famous, ironic book title, still talked themselves into it; and they did so, as McCarthy noted, because they set seemingly meaningful goals (“metrics” or “benchmarks,” we’d say today), which they then convinced themselves they were actually achieving. When you trick yourself into believing that you’re meeting your goals, as Halberstam noted, there’s no reason to reexamine your course of action.
Questions for President Obama: Much has been written about an internal struggle within your administration over the wisdom of surging in Afghanistan. Now, you, too, have called for the setting of “benchmarks” for your new strategy’s success. Are you wise enough to set them to capture the complexities of political realities on the ground rather than playing to American strengths? Are you capable of re-examining them, even when your advisors assure you that they are being achieved?
6. In her day, Mary McCarthy recognized the inequities of burden-sharing at home when it came to the war in Vietnam: “Casualty figures, still low [in 1967], seldom strike home outside rural and low-income groups — the silent part of society. The absence of sacrifices [among the privileged classes] has had its effect on the opposition [to the war], which feels no need, on the whole, to turn away from its habitual standards and practices — what for? We have not withdrawn our sympathy from American power and from the way of life that is tied to it — a connection that is more evident to a low-grade G.I. in Vietnam than to most American intellectuals.”
Questions for President Obama: Are you willing to listen to the common G.I. as well as to the generals who have your ear? Are you willing to insist on greater equity in burden-sharing, since once again most of the burden of Iraq and Afghanistan has fallen on “the silent part of society”? Are you able to recognize that the “best and brightest” in the corridors of power may not be the wisest exactly because they have so little to lose (and perhaps much to gain) from our “overseas contingency operations”?
7. McCarthy was remarkably perceptive when it came to the seductiveness of American technological prowess. Our technological superiority, she wrote, was a large part of “our willingness to get into Vietnam and stay there… The technological gap between us and the North Vietnamese constituted, we thought, an advantage which obliged us not to quit.”
Questions for President Obama: Rather than providing us with a war-winning edge, might our robot drones, satellite imagery, and all our other gadgetry of war seduce us into believing that we can “prevail” at a reasonable and sustainable cost? Indeed, do we think we should prevail precisely because our high-tech military brags of “full spectrum dominance”?
One bonus lesson from Mary McCarthy before we take our leave of her: Even now, we speak too often of “Bush’s war” or, more recently, “Obama’s war.” Before we start chattering mindlessly about Iraq and Afghanistan as American tragedies, we would do well to recall what McCarthy had to say about the war in Vietnam: “There is something distasteful,” she wrote, “in the very notion of approaching [Vietnam] as an American tragedy, whose protagonist is a great suffering Texan [President Lyndon Baines Johnson].”
Yes, there is something distasteful about a media that blithely refers to Bush’s or Obama’s war as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans suffer. For American troops, after all, are not the only ones paying the ultimate price when the U.S. fights foreign wars for ill-considered reasons and misguided goals.
Update: A cartoon panel by Matt Bors that sums it up:
Edward Snowden recently talked to Joe Rogan for nearly three hours. Snowden has a book out (“Permanent Record“) about his life and his decision to become a whistleblower who exposed lies and crimes by the U.S. national security state. As I watched Snowden’s interview, I jotted down notes and thoughts I had. (The interview itself has more than seven million views on YouTube and rising, which is great to see.) The term in my title, “turnkey tyranny,” is taken from the interview.
My intent here is not to summarize Snowden’s entire interview. I want to focus on some points he made that I found especially revealing, pertinent, and insightful.
Without further ado, here are 12 points I took from this interview:
1. People who reach the highest levels of government do so by being risk-averse. Their goal is never to screw-up in a major way. This mentality breeds cautiousness, mediocrity, and buck-passing. (I saw the same in my 20 years in the U.S. military.)
2. The American people are no longer partners of government. We are subjects. Our rights are routinely violated even as we become accustomed (or largely oblivious) to a form of turnkey tyranny.
3. Intelligence agencies in the U.S. used 9/11 to enlarge their power. They argued that 9/11 happened because there were “too many restrictions” on them. This led to the PATRIOT Act and unconstitutional global mass surveillance, disguised as the price of being kept “safe” from terrorism. Simultaneously, America’s 17 intelligence agencies wanted most of all not to be blamed for 9/11. They wanted to ensure the buck stopped nowhere. This was a goal they achieved.
4. Every persuasive lie has a kernel of truth. Terrorism does exist — that’s the kernel of truth. Illegal mass surveillance, facilitated by nearly unlimited government power, in the cause of “keeping us safe” is the persuasive lie.
5. The government uses classification (“Top Secret” and so on) primarily to hide things from the American people, who have no “need to know” in the view of government officials. Secrecy becomes a cloak for illegality. Government becomes unaccountable; the people don’t know, therefore we are powerless to rein in government excesses or to prosecute for abuses of power.
6. Fear is the mind-killer (my expression here, quoting Frank Herbert’s Dune). Snowden spoke much about the use of fear by the government, using expressions like “they’ll be blood on your hands” and “think of the children.” Fear is the way to cloud people’s minds. As Snowden put it, you lose the ability to act because you are afraid.
7. What is true patriotism? For Snowden, it’s about a constant effort to do good for the people. It’s not loyalty to government. Loyalty, Snowden notes, is only good in the service of something good.
8. National security and public safety are not synonymous. In fact, in the name of national security, our rights are being violated. We are “sweeping up the broken glass of our lost rights” in today’s world of global mass surveillance, Snowden noted.
9. We live naked before power. Companies like Facebook and Google, together with the U.S. government, know everything about us; we know little about them. It’s supposed to be the reverse (at least in a democracy).
10. “The system is built on lies.” James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, lies under oath before Congress. And there are no consequences. He goes unpunished.
11. We own less and less of our own data. Data increasingly belongs to corporations and the government. It’s become a commodity. Which means we are the commodity. We are being exploited and manipulated, we are being sold, and it’s all legal, because the powerful make the policies and the laws, and they are unaccountable to the people.
12. Don’t wait for a hero to save you. What matters is heroic decisions. You are never more than one decision away from making the world a better place.
In 2013, Edward Snowden made a heroic decision to reveal illegal mass surveillance by the U.S. government, among other governmental crimes. He has made the world a better place, but as he himself knows, the fight has only just begun against turnkey tyranny.