Remember President Biden’s request for $33 billion in “aid” to Ukraine? That $33 billion package has become $40 billion and has already been approved by the House. More than half of this “aid” is in the form of weapons or in support of deploying more U.S. troops and equipment to Europe. And even that $40 billion isn’t high enough for some members of the Senate, who are calling for even more “aid,” i.e. more spending at the expense of the American taxpayer that will likely serve to prolong the Russia-Ukraine War.
More and more money for war recalls a famous quip by Winston Churchill in the age of navalism, when industrial interests in the UK pushed for more and more battleships to be built so that Britain could continue to rule the waves and not be slaves.
As Churchill famously said: The Admiralty had demanded six ships; the economists offered four; and we finally compromised on eight.
America has embraced a militarized Keynesianism that is very good indeed for weapons makers like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. It’s also very good for the Pentagon, whose budget projections keep rising when they should be falling.
Think about it. Overall, the Russian military hasn’t yet distinguished itself in Ukraine, and the longer the war lasts, the weaker that military becomes. If the U.S. military budget was actually based on an honest assessment of threats, the budget should be decreasing as Russia becomes less of a threat.
Another interesting aspect of this is that it’s mainly been Republicans voting against the $40 billion package in “aid.” Democrats, no matter how “progressive,” are eagerly voting for it, even as inflation soars in America and people struggle to make ends meet.
Perhaps it’s time to build more battleships to help the poor and struggling? We can house the unhoused in ships!
As I mentioned in a previous Bracing View, I was invited to participate in a forum to generate new ideas to tackle the military-industrial complex (MIC) that President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned us about in 1961. Here are a few more thoughts in response to this stimulating collaboration:
When I was a college student in the early 1980s, and in Air Force ROTC, I wrote critically of the Reagan defense buildup. Caspar Weinberger, he of the “Cap the knife” handle for cost-cutting, became “Cap the ladle” as Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, ladling money in huge amounts to the Pentagon. History is repeating itself again as the Biden administration prepares to ladle $813 billion (and more) to the Pentagon.
How do we stop this? Of course, we must recognize (as I’m sure we all do) what we’re up against. Both political parties are pro-military and, in the main, pro-war. Our economy is based on a militarized Keynesianism and our culture is increasingly militarized. Mainstream Democrats, seemingly forever afraid of being labeled “weak” on defense, are at pains to be more pro-military than the Republicans. Biden, in Poland, echoed the words of Obama and other past presidents, declaring the U.S. military to be “the finest fighting force” in history. Think about that boast. Think about how Biden added that the nation owes the troops big. This is a sign of a sick culture.
Ike gave his MIC speech in 1961, and for 61 years the MIC has been winning. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early ‘90s, the MIC held its own; after 9/11, it went into warp speed and is accelerating. To cite Scotty from Star Trek: “And at Warp 10, we’re going nowhere mighty fast.”
We need a reformation of our institutions; we need a restoration of our democracy; we need a reaffirmation of the U.S. Constitution; we need to remember who we are, or perhaps who we want to be, as a people.
Do we really want to be the world’s largest dealer of arms? Do we really want to spend a trillion or more dollars, each and every year, on wars and weapons, more than the next dozen or so countries combined, most of which are allies of ours? (“Yes” is seemingly the answer here, for both Democrats and Republicans.) Is that really the best way to serve the American people? Humanity itself?
Consider plans to “invest” in “modernizing” America’s nuclear triad. (Notice the words used here by the MIC.) What does this really mean? To me, it means we plan on spending nearly $2 trillion over the next 30 years to replace an older suicide vest with a newer one, except this suicide vest will take out humanity itself, as well as most other life forms on our planet. To channel Greta Thunberg’s righteous anger, “How dare you!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVlRompc1yE
Or, as Ike said in 1953, “This is not a way of life at all … it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
We will need the broadest possible coalition to tackle this outrage against civilization and humanity. That’s why I applaud these efforts to tackle the MIC, even as I encourage all of us to enlist and recruit more people to join our ranks.
My father enlisted in the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 to do his bit for his family and his nation. He fought forest fires in Oregon and later became a firefighter after serving in the Army during World War II. That was the last formally declared war that America fought. It was arguably the last morally justifiable war this country has fought, waged by citizens who donned a uniform, not “warriors” who are told that the nation owes them big.
In “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Jimmy Stewart, a true war hero, played a man who never fought in World War II, who stayed at home and helped ordinary people even as his younger brother Harry went off to war and earned the Medal of Honor. Yet the movie doesn’t celebrate Harry’s war heroism; it celebrates the nobility, decency, and humility of George Bailey.
How do we get back to that America? The America from before the MIC, that celebrated decency and kindness and humanitarianism?
Yes, I know. It’s just a Frank Capra movie, and America has never been a perfect shining city. All I’m saying is we need more of that spirit, and more of the righteous anger of Greta Thunberg, if we are to prevail.
On “Two Minutes to Midnight,” I talk about some of the themes I’ve developed at this site. Produced by Catalysta, the idea behind the series is to encourage fresh thinking on the challenges confronting us in a rapidly changing world.
In this interview, I explain how and why America spends way too much on weaponry and wars, and how we can shift the narrative and revive the idea of peace. Echoing George McGovern, it’s time to “come home, America,” to invest in our country and ourselves, rather than to fund more weaponry and more overseas wars.
Near the end of the video, I make an appeal to younger generations of America to lift their voices against the military-industrial-Congressional complex. I urge them not to be intimidated and to speak their mind, explaining that many veterans are just as fed up as they are. Collectively, we need to act. And perhaps the first and most critical step is getting big corporate money out of politics even as we work to make major cuts to the U.S. war budget.
Special thanks to Edward Goldberg at Catalysta.net for inviting me and offering me a chance to share my views with a wider audience.
Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that the unexamined life is not worth living. Can it also be said that the unexamined military is not worth having?
What amazes me about the U.S. military is how little it is scrutinized. Sure, there’s armed services committees in the House and Senate, but they seem most concerned about shoveling more money toward the Pentagon. Either that or the dire perils of “critical race theory,” which is surely threatening the Republic more than runaway militarism, endless wars, and unneeded nuclear weapons.
What is to be done? I see only one solution: major cuts to the “defense” budget. And that budget is even higher than the stated figure of $705 billion or thereabouts. Nuclear weapons come under the Department of Energy, for example. Homeland Security has its separate budget (isn’t defense of the homeland what the Pentagon is all about?). The various intelligence agencies like the CIA and NSA and so forth churn through scores of billions yet couldn’t predict the collapse of the Soviet Union or the 9/11 attacks. Interestingly, after 9/11 these agencies saw vast increases in funding. Who knew incompetence could be so rewarding?
If you add up all the billions tied to weapons and wars and “defense” in America, you routinely exceed a trillion dollars a year. It’s almost an unfathomable sum. Perhaps it is to the U.S. military as well, since they can’t pass an audit. No one really knows where all the money is going.
Ike knew the score. Sixty years ago, President Eisenhower warned us all about the military-industrial-Congressional complex. A few people listened, but nobody in power did anything about it. Since then the Complex has only grown stronger and more pervasive (and invasive) in America. And now that same Complex owns the mainstream media. Remarkably, the “journalists” telling us all about the Complex on MSNBC and CNN and Fox are often retired CIA and military officials; they don’t even bother disclosing their obvious conflict of interest here.
Strangely, it’s become patriotic to salute our military rather than to examine it and challenge it. Americans, generally a boisterous and busy bunch, are remarkably quiet and passive except for all the saluting and praising. Until this mindset, and this behavior, changes radically, America will continue on a wasteful and wanton path forged by weapons and war.
And that really is something we need to examine in the collective life of our country.
In my village, there’s a memorial to the men who served in “the war with Germany,” 1917-18, which we now call World War I. Here’s a photo of it that I took a few days ago:
It includes the names of some of the oldest and most prominent families of my community, which is not surprising. World War I did witness a draft in America, but there was also a sense of noblesse oblige among the more affluent, a sense that one was required to serve if one was healthy.
I’ve often wondered what would have happened if Woodrow Wilson, reelected as president in 1916, actually had acted to keep America out of the war, as he promised he would. The “Yanks and the tanks” helped to tip the scales against Imperial Germany on the Western Front in the spring of 1918. Without the presence of U.S. doughboys (troops), and more importantly the promise of more to come, it’s possible the French and British may have been defeated by the great German offensive, or at the very least may have decided to sue for peace. But of course the German offensive ran its course and stalled, and the Allied counteroffensive (supported by a million or so fresh Yanks) wore down the Germans until they sued for peace, with the war finally ending on November 11, 1918.
It’s tempting to think that a German victory or quasi-victory in 1918 or 1919 would have prevented the rise of someone like Adolf Hitler. Hitler himself was devastated by Germany’s loss in 1918, as so many Germans were, and that loss combined with the seductive lie that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” by traitorous elements on the homefront created the climate in which a rabble-rouser like Hitler could rise and thrive. And surely the Second Reich under Kaiser Wilhelm and officers like Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff was preferable to the Third Reich under Hitler and his henchmen?
I’m not so sure. Germany’s Second Reich achieved something in 1917 the Third Reich couldn’t in 1941: the defeat of Russia. (The injection of Lenin into Russia as a poison pill of sorts contributed to the Russian Revolution and the death of the Tsar.) But that same Second Reich imposed the harshest of peaces on a destabilized Russia. Known as the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Germans took huge swaths of territory from Russia, most of its industrial resources, and much of its agricultural base as well. Basically, men like Ludendorff saw the Slavic peoples as inferior and pictured them as Germany’s slaves. Russia’s western lands were to become living space for the superior Germanic peoples. In short, Lebensraum (living space) wasn’t just Hitler’s idea: it was an ambition shared by many German militarists. Let’s recall as well the name of the general who marched beside Hitler in the infamous Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. That general: Ludendorff.
A German victory in 1918 or 1919 would have produced a hell of sorts for the Slavic peoples to the east. Perhaps not a Hitlerian Holocaust (virulent and murderous anti-Semitism was peculiar to Hitler and the Third Reich), but nevertheless an empire characterized by an expansionist militarism that saw dispossession and slavery as perfectly legitimate options for the future. In sum, the Germans of early 1918 were ruthless in victory, so when Germany ultimately lost later that year, the Allies reciprocated with ruthlessness of their own in 1919.
German militarism had to be stopped, or so the men with names on the monument in my village appear to have decided. The shame of it all is how World War I led, not to eternal peace as Wilson promised, but to World War II and to so many wars and conflicts after that.
Memorial Day reminds us of the price troops pay for seemingly endless wars, and that even when wars appear to be for good, even noble, causes, how often those causes are betrayed whether during or after those wars.
As the Senate prepares to acquit Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial, I thought it would be a good time for a quick look at his legacy on war and militarism. Trump’s fans like to say he started no new wars. But he was hardly a man of peace, and his legacy on war and militarism is almost entirely negative. Here, in no particular order, are my quick thoughts on this subject:
He boosted military spending and weapons sales. Trump basically bought off the military-industrial-congressional complex by throwing scores of billions of dollars its way while selling weapons around the world. It’s an old formula for U.S. presidents and it worked.
He boosted a militant nationalism vis-a-vis rivals and even traditional allies. Trump was no friend to Russia and aggravated relations with China. Relations with NATO allies were also aggravated as he pressured them to spend more on weapons and wars.
He boosted militarism at home and specifically with police forces. Trump supported and encouraged violent police crackdowns of BLM activists. He called for the deployment of active duty military in the streets of Washington, DC. He even called for a massive military parade (which never happened).
He boosted overseas bombing and drone strikes. Recall the use of MOAB in Afghanistan, or Trump’s missile strike against Syria, and increased bombing in Afghanistan.
He boosted tensions with Iran nearly to the breaking point. Trump’s drone strike against Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was an act of war; harsh economic sanctions and withdrawal from the Obama-era nuclear treaty with Iran also heightened tensions.
He boosted the chances of nuclear war in the future. Trump was a fan of nuclear weapons; he seems to think of them simply as bigger, mightier bombs. His pursuit of “smaller” tactical nuclear warheads and their deployment on Trident-class nuclear submarines increase the possibility of nuclear war in the future.
He boosted economic sanctions against Venezuela while pursuing a coup. Trump knows Venezuela has vast oil reserves. Why not overthrow their government and take their oil? That was Trump’s policy, more or less. (It doesn’t appear to have changed under Joe Biden.)
Creation of a Space Force. Yet another military competitor for U.S. taxpayer dollars, even as space itself becomes another sphere for the U.S. military to “dominate.”
Failure to end wars that he promised to end. Trump was talked out of ending the war in Afghanistan by generals like James Mattis and H.R. McMaster. Ending such wars was a promise Trump foolishly abandoned.
Reliance on Generals as wise men. Trump, overall a weak and vainglorious man, surrounded himself with generals like Mattis, McMaster, John Kelly, and (briefly) Michael Flynn. Thus he got narrow-minded war-mongering advice.
Seeing the world as a zero-sum game of winners and losers and debasing the art of diplomacy. Putting Mike Pompeo in charge of the State Department was a new low in the pursuit of peace through diplomacy.
Aiding genocide in Yemen while kowtowing to Israel and Saudi Arabia: Trump was a willing participant to genocide in Yemen while pursuing a “peace” plan with Israel that was totally one-sided vis-a-vis the status and rights of Palestinians.
Off the top of my head, that’s my top twelve of Trump’s legacies in this arena. What do you think, readers? Can you think of others? And will any of this really change under Joe Biden?
All this talk of coups, and U.S. military veterans’ involvement in the same, reminds me of an article I wrote for TomDispatch.com exactly eleven years ago in 2010. In the article, I suggested the possibility of “a very American coup” in 2016, and I wrote that “A military that’s being used to fight unwinnable wars is a military prone to return home disaffected and with scores to settle.” Recent events at the U.S. Capitol suggest that many Americans do have scores to settle, and some of them are disaffected veterans.
Of course, my vintage 2010 crystal ball wasn’t completely clear, but I think I got a few things more or less right, especially my prescriptions for preventing coups, which still apply today, I’d argue. What do you think, readers?
The wars in distant lands were always going to come home, but not this way.
It’s September 2016, year 15 of America’s “Long War” against terror. As weary troops return to the homeland, a bitter reality assails them: despite their sacrifices, America is losing.
Iraq is increasingly hostile to remaining occupation forces. Afghanistan is a riddle that remains unsolved: its army and police forces are untrustworthy, its government corrupt, and its tribal leaders unsympathetic to the vagaries of U.S. intervention. Since the Obama surge of 2010, a trillion more dollars have been devoted to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and other countries in the vast shatter zone that is central Asia, without measurable returns; nothing, that is, except the prolongation of America’s Great Recession, now entering its tenth year without a sustained recovery in sight.
Disillusioned veterans are unable to find decent jobs in a crumbling economy. Scarred by the physical and psychological violence of war, fed up with the happy talk of duplicitous politicians who only speak of shared sacrifices, they begin to organize. Their motto: take America back.
Meanwhile, a lame duck presidency, choking on foreign policy failures, finds itself attacked even for its putative successes. Health-care reform is now seen to have combined the inefficiency and inconsistency of government with the naked greed and exploitative talents of corporations. Medical rationing is a fact of life confronting anyone on the high side of 50. Presidential rhetoric that offered hope and change has lost all resonance. Mainstream media outlets are discredited and disintegrating, resulting in new levels of information anarchy.
Protest, whether electronic or in the streets, has become more common — and the protestors in those streets increasingly carry guns, though as yet armed violence is minimal. A panicked administration responds with overlapping executive orders and legislation that is widely perceived as an attack on basic freedoms.
Tapping the frustration of protesters — including a renascent and mainstreamed “tea bag” movement — the former captains and sergeants, the ex-CIA operatives and out-of-work private mercenaries of the War on Terror take action. Conflict and confrontation they seek; laws and orders they increasingly ignore. As riot police are deployed in the streets, they face a grim choice: where to point their guns? Not at veterans, they decide, not at America’s erstwhile heroes.
A dwindling middle-class, still waving the flag and determined to keep its sliver-sized portion of the American dream, throws its support to the agitators. Wages shrinking, savings exhausted, bills rising, the sober middle can no longer hold. It vents its fear and rage by calling for a decisive leader and the overthrow of a can’t-do Congress.
Savvy members of traditional Washington elites are only too happy to oblige. They too crave order and can-do decisiveness — on their terms. Where better to find that than in the ranks of America’s most respected institution: the military?
A retired senior officer who led America’s heroes in central Asia is anointed. His creed: end public disorder, fight the War on Terror to a victorious finish, put America back on top. The United States, he says, is the land of winners, and winners accept no substitute for victory. Nominated on September 11, 2016, Patriot Day, he marches to an overwhelming victory that November, embraced in the streets by an American version of the post-World War I GermanFreikorps and the police who refuse to suppress them. A concerned minority is left to wonder (and tremble) at the de facto military coup that occurred so quickly, and yet so silently, in their midst.
It Can Happen Here, Unless We Act
Yes, it can happen here. In some ways, it’s already happening. But the key question is: at this late date, how can it be stopped? Here are some vectors for a change in course, and in mindset as well, if we are to avoid our own stealth coup:
1. Somehow, we need to begin to reverse the ongoing militarization of this country, especially our ever-rising “defense” budgets. The most recent of these, we’ve just learned, is a staggering $708 billion for fiscal year 2011 — and that doesn’t even include the $33 billion President Obama has requested for his latest surge in Afghanistan. We also need to get rid of the idea that anyone who suggests even minor cuts in defense spending is either hopelessly naïve or a terrorist sympathizer. It’s time as well to call a halt to the privatization of military activity and so halt the rise of security contractors like Xe (formerly Blackwater), thereby weakening the corporate profit motive that supports and underpins the American version of perpetual war. It’s time to begin feeling chastened, not proud, that we’re by far the number one country in the world in arms manufacturing and the global arms trade.
2. Let’s downsize our global mission rather than endlessly expanding our military footprint. It’s time to have a military capable of defending this country, not fighting endless wars in distant lands while garrisoning the globe.
3. Let’s stop paying attention to major TV and cable networks that rely on retired senior military officers, most of whom have ties both to the Pentagon and military contractors, for “unbiased” commentary on our wars. If we insist on fighting our perpetual “frontier” wars, let’s start insisting as well that they be covered in all their bitter reality: the death, the mayhem, the waste, the prisons, and the torture. Why is our war coverage invariably sanitized to “PG” or even “G,” when we can go to the movies anytime and see “R” rated, pornographically violent films? And by the way, it’s time to be more critical of the government’s and the media’s use of language and propaganda. Mindlessly parroting the Patriot Act doesn’t make you patriotic.
4. It’s time to elect a president who doesn’t surround himself with senior “civilian” advisors and ambassadors who are actually retired military generals and admirals, one who won’t accept a Nobel Peace Prize by defending war in theory and escalating it in practice.
5. Let’s toughen up. Let’s stop deferring to authority figures who promise to “protect” us while abridging our rights. Let’s stop bowing down before men and women in uniform, before they start thinking that it’s their right to be worshipped and act accordingly.
6. Let’s act now to relieve the sort of desperation bred by joblessness and hopelessness that could lead many — notably male workers suffering from the “He-Cession” — to see a militarized solution in “the homeland” as a credible last resort. It’s the economy, stupid, but with Main Street’s health, not Wall Street’s, in our focus.
7. Let’s take Sarah Palin and her followers seriously. They’re tapping into anger that’s real and spreading. Don’t let them become the voices of the angry working (and increasingly unemployed) classes.
8. Recognize that we face real enemies in our world, the most powerful of which aren’t in distant Afghanistan or Yemen but here at home. The essence of our struggle to sustain our faltering democracy should not be against “terrorists,” with their shoe and crotch bombs, but against various powerful, perfectly legal groups here whose interests lie in a Pentagon that only grows ever stronger.
9. Stop thinking the U.S. is uniquely privileged. Don’t take it on faith that God is on our side. Forget about God blessing America. If you believe in God, get out there and start trying to earn His blessing through deeds.
10. And, most important of all, remember that fear is the mind-killer that makes militarism possible. Ramping up “terror” is an amazingly effective way of shredding our Constitution. Putting our “safety” above all else is asking for trouble. The only way we’ll be completely safe from the big bad terrorists, after all, is when we’re all living in a maximum security state. Think of walking down the street while always being subject to a “full-body scan.”
That’s my top 10 things we need to do. It’s a daunting list and I’m sure you have a few ideas of your own. But have faith. Ultimately, it all boils down to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s words to a nation suffering through the Great Depression: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. These words came to mind recently as I read the following missive from a friend and World War II veteran who’s seen tough times:
“It’s very hard for me to accept how soft the American people have become. In 1941, with the western world under assault by powerful and deadly forces, and a large armada of ships and planes attacking us directly, I never heard a word of fear as we faced three powerful nations as enemies. Sixteen million of us went into the military with the very real possibility of death and I never once heard of fear, except from those exposed to danger. Now, our people let [their leaders] terrify them into accepting the destruction of our economy, our image in the world, and our democracy… All this over a small group of religious fanatics [mostly] from Saudi Arabia whom we kowtow to so we can drive 8-cylinder SUV’s. Pathetic!”
“How many times have I stood in ‘security lines’ at airports and when I complained of the indignity of taking off shoes and not having water and the manhandling of passengers, have well educated people smugly said to me, ‘Well, they’re just keeping us safe.’ I look at the airport bullshit as a training ground to turn Americans into docile sheep in a totalitarian state.”
A public conditioned to act like sheep, to “support our troops” no matter what, to cower before the idea of terrorism, is a public ready to be herded. A military that’s being used to fight unwinnable wars is a military prone to return home disaffected and with scores to settle.
Angry and desperate veterans and mercenaries already conditioned to violence, merging with “tea baggers” and other alienated groups, could one day form our own Freikorps units, rioting for violent solutions to national decline. Recall that the Nazi movement ultimately succeeded in the early 1930s because so many middle-class Germans were scared as they saw their wealth, standard of living, and status all threatened by the Great Depression.
If our Great Recession continues, if decent jobs remain scarce, if the mainstream media continue to foster fear and hatred, if returning troops are disaffected and their leaders blame politicians for “not being tough enough,” if one or two more terrorist attacks succeed on U.S. soil, wouldn’t this country be well primed for a coup by any other name?
Don’t expect a “Seven Days in May” scenario. No American Caesar will return to Washington with his legions to decapitate governmental authority. Why not? Because he won’t have to.
As long as we continue to live in perpetual fear in an increasingly militarized state, we establish the preconditions under which Americans will be nailed to, and crucified on, a cross of iron.
William J. Astore teaches History at the Pennsylvania College of Technology (firstname.lastname@example.org). A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), he has also taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School. A TomDispatch regular, he is the author of Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism.
I wrote my latest article for TomDispatch.com (below) before the Capitol riot, adding a quick reference to it at the last minute in the first paragraph. Events at the U.S. Capitol as well as other recent violent events in America lend credence to the idea we’re all prisoners of war of a sort. Global wars may be invisible to most Americans, but domestic ones are all too plain to see. How do we make our “great escape” from a culture of incessant violence and permanent war?
“POWs Never Have A Nice Day.” That sentiment was captured on a button a friend of mine wore for our fourth grade class photo in 1972. That prisoners of war could never have such a day was reinforced by the sad face on that button. Soon after, American POWs would indeed be released by their North Vietnamese captors as the American war in Vietnam ended. They came home the next year to a much-hyped heroes’ welcome orchestrated by the administration of President Richard Nixon, but the government would never actually retire its POW/MIA (missing-in-action) flags. Today, almost half a century later, they continue to fly at federal installations, including the U.S. Capitol as it was breached and briefly besieged last week by a mob incited by this country’s lame-duck president, ostensibly to honor all U.S. veterans who were either POWs or never returned because their bodies were never recovered.
Remembering the sacrifices of our veterans is fitting and proper; it’s why we set aside Memorial Day in May and Veterans Day in November. In thinking about those POWs and the dark legacy of this country’s conflicts since World War II, however, I’ve come to a realization. In the ensuing years, we Americans have all, in some sense, become prisoners of war. We’re all part of a culture that continues to esteem war, embrace militarism, and devote more than half of federal discretionary spending to wars, weaponry, and the militarization of American culture. We live in a country that leads the world in the export of murderous munitions to the grimmest, most violent hotspots on the planet, enabling, for example, a genocidal conflict in Yemen, among other conflicts.
True, in a draft-less country, few enough Americans actually don a military uniform these days. As 2021 begins, most of us have never carried a military identification card that mentions the Geneva Convention on the proper and legal treatment of POWs, as I did when I wore a uniform long ago. So, when I say that all Americans are essentially POWs, I’m obviously using that acronym not in a legal or formal way, but in the colloquial sense of being captured by some phenomenon, held by it, subjected to it in a fashion that tends to restrict, if not eliminate, freedom of thought and action and so compromises this country’s belief in sacred individual liberties. In this colloquial sense, it seems to me that all Americans have in some fashion become prisoners of war, even those few “prisoners” among us who have worked so bravely and tirelessly to resist the phenomenon.
Ask yourself this question: During a deadly pandemic, as the American death toll approaches 400,000 while still accelerating, what unites “our” representatives in Congress? What is the only act that draws wide and fervent bipartisan support, not to speak of a unique override of a Trump presidential veto in these last four years? It certainly isn’t providing health care for all or giving struggling families checks for $2,000 to ensure that food will be on American tables or that millions of us won’t be evicted from our homes in the middle of a pandemic. No, what unites “our” representatives is funding the military-industrial complex to the tune of $740.5 billion in fiscal year 2021 (though the real amount spent on what passes for “national security” each year regularly exceeds a trillion dollars). Still, that figure of $740.5 billion in itself is already higher than the combined military spending of the next 10 countries, including Russia and China as well as U.S. allies like France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
Not only that, but Congress added language to the latest defense bill that effectively blocked efforts by President Trump before he leaves office on January 20th to mandate the withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan (and some troops from Germany). Though it’s doubtful he would have accomplished such goals anyway, given his irresolute nature, that Congress worked to block him tells you what you need to know about “our” representatives and their allegiance to the war complex.
That said, an irresolute Trump administration has been most resolute in just one area: selling advanced weaponry overseas. It’s been rushing to export American-made bombs, missiles, and jets to the Middle East before turning over government efforts to shill for America’s merchants of death to President Joe Biden and his crew of deskbound warriors.
Speaking of Biden, that he selected retired General Lloyd Austin III to be his secretary of defense sends the strongest possible signal of his own allegiance to the primacy of militarism and war in American culture. After all, upon retiring, General Austin promptly cashed in by joining the board of directors of United Technologies from which he received $1.4 million in “stock and other compensation” before it merged with giant weapons-maker Raytheon and he ended up on the board of that company. (He holds roughly $500,000 in Raytheon stock, a nice supplement to his six-figure yearly military pension.)
How better than selecting him as SecDef to ensure that the “military” and the “industrial” remain wedded in that famed complex? America’s secretary of defense is, of course, supposed to be a civilian, someone who can exercise strong and independent oversight over America’s ever-growing war complex, not a lifelong military officer and general to boot, as well as an obvious war profiteer.
War Is Peace
As Quincy Institute President Andrew Bacevich so aptly put it, “many Americans have made their peace with endless war.” Within America’s war culture, peace activists like Medea Benjamin and organizations like Veterans for Peace are seen as not just “radical,” but genuinely aberrant. Meanwhile, an unquestioning acceptance of the fact that this country is now eternally at war across significant parts of the planet is considered normal, even respectable. Certainly, not something to put real time or thought into considering.
As a result, warmongers like former Trump National Security Advisor John Bolton are touted in some quarters as hard-headed realists. In seeing the world as a hostile place that Americans need to (but somehow, almost 20 years later, can’t) dominate means their heads are screwed on straight, unlike those screwy thinkers who advocate for peace. But as Dorothy Day, the Catholic peace activist, once said: “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”
That Americans mostly refuse to see permanent war as filthy and rotten, or to think much about it or the “defense” budget that goes with it showcases the triumph of a broader war culture here. Whereas this country’s profligate and prodigal military complex has given us stunning failure after stunning failure overseas (just consider all those disastrous efforts to win “hearts and minds” from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq and on and on), it has proved stunningly successful in winning — or at least taming — hearts and minds in the homeland. How else to explain the way those trillion-dollar-plus “national security” budgets are routinely rubber-stamped by Congress with hardly a murmur of protest?
In the twenty-first century, Americans are suffering a form of cognitive capture in which war has become the new normal. As an astute reader at my blog, Bracing Views, put it: “Our desire to live without war is held in a stockade, and every day that we wake up and walk out into the yard that understanding is being broken down by the powerful monied elites.”
In America’s collective stockade of the mind, activism for peace is an aberration, while acceptance of the war state is second nature. Small wonder that Biden’s proposed cabinet and administration features so many neocon-style policymakers who made their peace with war, whether in Iraq and Afghanistan or Libya and Syria (Antony Blinken as secretary of state; Jake Sullivan as national security advisor; retired general Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense; and Avril Haines as director of national intelligence). Biden’s hawkish picks avidly place their faith in U.S. military power. And they will be advising a new president, who once supported war in Iraq himself and talks not of reducing “defense” spending but of boosting it.
Perhaps you’ve noticed, in fact, how every president from George W. Bush in 2001 on has been proud to pose at some point as a “wartime” president. Perhaps you’ve noticed as well that this country can’t or won’t close Gitmo, the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, flooded with prisoners from the global war on terror beginning late in 2001, men who will likely be imprisoned until death does us part.
Perhaps this is why the U.S. government “tortured some folks,” as President Obama put it in 2014, and abused Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq. (Avril Haines, Biden’s proposed national intelligence director, once helped suppress evidence of just such abuse and torture.) Perhaps this is why every president starting with George W. Bush has unapologetically smited evildoers around the world via robotic assassin drones. (Remember, the drone assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Suleimani at Baghdad International Airport by one Donald J. Trump?) Perhaps this is also why U.S. bombing never seems to stop and those wars never end, even when a president comes into office promising that they will. After all, it’s so empowering to be a “wartime” president!
In his novel 1984, George Orwell put it simply enough when he coined the slogan “war is peace” for his fictional dystopian society. Randolph Bourne put it no less simply when, during World War I, he explained that “war is the health of the state.” Rosa Brooks, who worked at the Pentagon, put it bluntly when she titled her 2016 book How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. What we have in America today is warfare as welfare, a form of man-made disaster capitalism, profitable for a few at the expense of the many.
Say it again: We are all POWs now.
The Time I Met a Real POW
In the early 1990s, when I was a young captain in the U.S. Air Force, I served as an escort officer for Brigadier General Robinson Risner. It’s not too much to say that Risner is held in awe in the Air Force. A skilled fighter pilot and Korean War ace, he was a colonel and on the cover of Time magazine in 1965, just as the Vietnam War was ramping up, after which he was shot down and became a POW. He later wrote The Passing of the Night, a harrowing account of the seven years he spent as a prisoner in the “Hanoi Hilton,” the sardonic name American POWs gave North Vietnam’s Hoa Lo Prison.
What sustained Risner through torture and those years of captivity was his Christian faith and patriotism. I vividly recall a talk he gave at the Air Force Academy about his experiences and how that faith of his had sustained him. I’ve never heard a more vivid evocation of the spirit of duty, honor, and country sustained by faith in a higher power. I was proud to have a photo taken with General Risner, as we stood next to the trophy named after him and annually awarded to the top graduate of the Air Force’s Weapons School, the AF’s Top Gun, so to speak.
Risner was gracious and compelling, and I was humbled to meet a POW who’d endured and overcome as much as he had. Yet, back then (to be honest), I never gave a thought to his actions as a fighter pilot leading bombing missions during Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam. Since the U.S. government had chosen not to officially declare war against North Vietnam, whether his missions were even legal should have been open to question. Lacking such an official declaration, one could argue that Risner and U.S. POWs like him did not enjoy the legal protections of the Geneva Convention. Using American terminology today, Risner might then have been termed an “enemy combatant” to be held indefinitely, as the U.S. today holds captives at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, POWs who have little hope of ever being released.
To your average American captured by U.S. war culture, objections here are easy. Of course, Risner’s bombing missions were legal. Of course, he deserved to be recognized as a POW and treated decently. America never goes to war without righteous cause, in this case the containment of Communism by any means short of nuclear weapons. The North Vietnamese saw it differently, however, perhaps because it was they who were being bludgeoned and flattened by U.S. military power.
My point is neither to praise Risner nor to bury him. Rather, it’s to bury war and the culture that breeds and then feeds on it. The more Americans facilitate war (largely by ignoring it and so giving it our tacit approval), the more Washington funds it, the more other people die because of “our” wars and “our” weaponry, the more this country becomes a POW nation writ large.
My Friend’s Button Again
Remember my friend’s button, the one that insisted POWs never have a nice day? As a POW nation writ large, it should apply to all of us. America won’t have a nice day again until it extricates itself from war in all its manifestations. There will be no nice day until Congress stops funding munitions makers and starts seeking peace and helping the sick and poor. There will be no nice day until Americans hate war with all the passion now saved for “patriotic” flag waving. There will be no nice day until presidents bless peacemakers instead of beseeching God to protect the troops.
So, the next time you see a POW/MIA flag outside a federal building, don’t dismiss it as a relic of America’s past. Think about its meaning and relevance in an era of constant global warfare and colossal military spending. Then, if you dare, ask yourself if you, too, are a POW of sorts — not in the strictly legal sense that applies to formal militaries in declared wars, but in the sense of this country being captured by war in all its death, destruction, and despair. And then ask yourself, what does America have to do, collectively, to break out of the POW camp in which it’s imprisoned itself?
Upon that question hinges the future of the American republic.
Copyright 2021 William J. Astore
Many thanks to UTEJACK for the “stockade” quote and the inspiration. Many thanks to Tori LaGarde for identifying the POW button in the 4th grade photo — and for the inspiration as well.
Who’s going to win the 2020 election? I can already tell you who’s won: the military-industrial-congressional complex. With broad bipartisan support, the next Pentagon budget will be $740.5 billion, and that’s just for starters. Congress has also acted to thwart troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, because fighting a devastating war for 19 years and counting isn’t enough. (See this excellent article and video by Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept.) We must keep fighting that war because — well, reasons. You can insert various phony reasons here: we must support our Afghan allies; we must combat terrorism; we must stay loyal to the Nato allies we dragooned into the war; we must continue fighting or else Russia wins because … bounties? Putin?
The real reasons: profit. Bases. Resources. And a total lack of sense and fortitude within the Washington Beltway.
It’s deja vu all over again, because in 2012 I wrote the following article on how the Pentagon had already won the election irrespective of which candidate — Barack Obama or Mitt Romney — prevailed. And so it proved.
Even during a pandemic, even during a recession, even when American workers and our armies of the unemployed need all the help they can get, the Pentagon budget reigns supreme. War and weapons are truly the health of the state here in America, uniting Democrats and Republicans in a form of militaristic bliss. But fighting and containing Covid-19? Helping the needy? Not so much.
The National Security State Wins (Again) Why the Real Victor in Campaign 2012 Won’t Be Obama or Romney
By William J. Astore
Now that Mitt Romney is the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party, the media is already handicapping the presidential election big time, and the neck-and-neck opinion polls are pouring in. But whether President Obama gets his second term or Romney enters the Oval Office, there’s a third candidate no one’s paying much attention to, and that candidate is guaranteed to be the one clear winner of election 2012: the U.S. military and our ever-surging national security state.
The reasons are easy enough to explain. Despite his record as a “warrior-president,” despite the breathless “Obama got Osama” campaign boosterism, common inside-the-Beltway wisdom has it that the president has backed himself into a national security corner. He must continue to appear strong and uncompromising on defense or else he’ll get the usual Democrat-as-war-wimp label tattooed on his arm by the Republicans.
Similarly, to have a realistic chance of defeating him — so goes American political thinking — candidate Romney must be seen as even stronger and more uncompromising, a hawk among hawks. Whatever military spending Obama calls for, however much he caters to neo-conservative agendas, however often he confesses his undying love for and extols the virtues of our troops, Romney will surpass him with promises of even more military spending, an even more muscular and interventionist foreign policy, and an even deeper love of our troops.
Indeed, with respect to the national security complex, candidate Romney already comes across like Edward G. Robinson’s Johnny Rocco in the classic film Key Largo: he knows he wants one thing, and that thing is more. More ships for the Navy. More planes for the Air Force. More troops in general — perhaps 100,000 more. And much more spending on national defense.
Clearly, come November, whoever wins or loses, the national security state will be the true victor in the presidential sweepstakes.
Of course, the election cycle alone is hardly responsible for our national love of weaponry and war. Even in today’s straitened fiscal climate, with all the talk of government austerity, Congress feels obliged to trump an already generous president by adding yet more money for military appropriations. Ever since the attacks of 9/11, surging defense budgets, forever war, and fear-mongering have become omnipresent features of our national landscape, together with pro-military celebrations that elevate our warriors and warfighters to hero status. In fact, the uneasier Americans grow when it comes to the economy and signs of national decline, the more breathlessly we praise our military and its image of overwhelming power. Neither Obama nor Romney show any sign of challenging this celebratory global “lock and load” mentality.
To explain why, one must consider not only the pro-military positions of each candidate, but their vulnerabilities — real or perceived — on military issues. Mitt Romney is the easier to handicap. As a Mormon missionary in France and later as the beneficiary of a high draft lottery number, Romney avoided military service during the Vietnam War. Perhaps because he lacks military experience, he has already gone on record (during the Republican presidential debates) as deferring to military commanders on decisions such as whether we should bomb Iran. A President Romney, it seems, would be more implementer-in-chief than civilian commander-in-chief.
Romney’s métier at Bain Capital was competence in the limited sense of buying low and selling high, along with a certain calculated ruthlessness in dividing companies and discarding people to manufacture profit. These skills, such as they are, earn him little respect in military circles. Compare him to Harry Truman or Teddy Roosevelt, both take-charge leaders with solid military credentials. Rather than a Trumanesque “the buck stops here,” Romney is more about “make a buck here.” Rather than Teddy Roosevelt’s bloodied but unbowed “man in the arena,” Romney is more bloodless equity capitalist circling high above the fray in a fancy suit.
Consider as well Romney’s five telegenic sons. It’s hard to square Mitt’s professions of love for our military with his sons’ lack of interest in military service. Indeed, when asked about their lack of enthusiasm for joining the armed forces during the surge in Iraq in 2007, Mitt off-handedly replied that his sons were already performing an invaluable national service by helping him get elected.
An old American upper class sense of noblesse oblige, of sons of privilege like George H.W. Bush or John F. Kennedy volunteering for national service in wartime, has been dead for decades in our otherwise military-happy country. When it comes to sending American sons (and increasingly daughters) into harm’s way, for President Romney it’ll be another case of chickenhawk guts and working-class blood.
For election 2012, however, the main point is that the Romney family’s collective lack of service makes him vulnerable on national defense, a weakness that has already led Mitt and his campaign to overcompensate with ever more pro-military policy pronouncements supplemented with the usual bellicose rhetoric of all Republicans (Ron Paul excepted). As a result, President-elect Romney will ultimately find himself confined, cowed, and controlled by the national security complex — and he’ll have only himself (and Barack Obama) to blame.
Obama, by way of contrast, has already shown a passion for military force that in saner times would make him invulnerable to charges of being “weak” on defense. Fond of dressing up in military flight jackets and praising the troops to the rafters, Obama has substance to go with his style. He’s made some tough calls like sending SEAL Team 6 into Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden; using NATO airpower to take down Qaddafi in Libya; expanding special ops and drone warfare in Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, including the assassination of U.S. citizens without judicial process. America’s Nobel Peace Prize winner of 2009 has become a devotee of special forces, kill teams, and high-tech drones that challenge the very reality of national sovereignty. Surely such a man can’t be accused of being weak on defense.
The political reality, of course, is different. Despite his record, the Republican Party is forever at pains to portray Obama as suspect (that middle name Hussein!), divided in his loyalties (that Kenyan connection!), and not slavish enough in his devotion to “underdog” Israel. (Could he be a crypto-Muslim?)
The president and his campaign staff are no fools. Since any sign of “weakness” vis-à-vis Iran and similar enemies du jour or any expression of less than boundless admiration for our military will be exploited ruthlessly by Romney et al., Obama will continue to tack rightwards on military issues and national defense. As a result, once elected he, too, will be a prisoner of the Complex. In this process, the only surefire winner and all-time champ: once again, the national security state.
So what can we expect on the campaign trail this summer and fall? Certainly not prospective civilian commanders-in-chief confident in the vitally important role of restraining or even reversing the worst excesses of an imperial state. Rather, we’ll witness two men vying to be cheerleader-in-chief for continued U.S. imperial dominance achieved at nearly any price.
Election 2012 will be all about preserving the imperial status quo, only more so. Come January 2013, regardless of which man takes the oath of office, we’ll remain a country with a manic enthusiasm for the military. Rather than a president who urges us to abhor endless war, we’ll be led by a man intent on keeping us oblivious to the way we’re squandering our nation’s future in fruitless conflicts that ultimately compromise our core constitutional principles.
For all the suspense the media will gin up in the coming months, the ballots are already in and the real winner of election 2012 will be the national security state. Unless you’re a denizen of that special interest state, we know the loser, too. It’s you.
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), is a TomDispatch regular. He welcomes reader comments at email@example.com. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Astore discusses how the two presidential candidates are sure to out-militarize each other in the coming election campaign, click here or download it to your iPod here.
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Today, Burt Cohen and I discussed police militarization and how to reverse it. The interview was based on my article for TomDispatch.com, posted here at Bracing Views as well. Here is what Burt posted at his site, Keeping Democracy Alive (link follows):
For nearly 20 years, the goal of America’s perpetual war has been about dominating the world. It has been largely out of sight, but now it’s on our streets. Our president has turned the weapons on us; again the goal is domination of the streets. All decked out in combat gear, the line between police and the military is blurred. The police are hired by us to defend us, not attack us. On this show USAF retired Lieutenant Colonel and history professor William Astore gives his perspective on “warrior cops.” Astore says there’s a reason why we don’t have military parades in America. What we have here is a twisted version of security, but with millions witnessing the murder of George Floyd, and realizing that there are hundreds more like that we have not seen, perhaps this is a turning point. Click https://bit.ly/3fnMrFP for podcast. Subscribe@keepingdemocracyalive.com