War Train, Soundin’ Louder

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War train, vintage World War II.  Peace train nowhere in sight.

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I look afresh at the many reasons why America’s wars persist — and why the “war train” is soundin’ ever louder across America and indeed much of the world.

Here’s an excerpt; please read the entire article at TomDispatch.

Think of this as the new American exceptionalism. In Washington, war is now the predictable (and even desirable) way of life, while peace is the unpredictable (and unwise) path to follow. In this context, the U.S. must continue to be the most powerful nation in the world by a country mile in all death-dealing realms and its wars must be fought, generation after generation, even when victory is never in sight. And if that isn’t an “exceptional” belief system, what is?

If we’re ever to put an end to our country’s endless twenty-first-century wars, that mindset will have to be changed. But to do that, we would first have to recognize and confront war’s many uses in American life and culture.

War, Its Uses (and Abuses)

A partial list of war’s many uses might go something like this: war is profitable, most notably for America’s vast military-industrial complex; war is sold as being necessary for America’s safety, especially to prevent terrorist attacks; and for many Americans, war is seen as a measure of national fitness and worthiness, a reminder that “freedom isn’t free.” In our politics today, it’s far better to be seen as strong and wrong than meek and right.

As the title of a book by former war reporter Chris Hedges so aptly put it, war is a force that gives us meaning. And let’s face it, a significant part of America’s meaning in this century has involved pride in having the toughest military on the planet, even as trillions of tax dollars went into a misguided attempt to maintain bragging rights to being the world’s sole superpower.

And keep in mind as well that, among other things, never-ending war weakens democracy while strengthening authoritarian tendencies in politics and society. In an age of gaping inequality, using up the country’s resources in such profligate and destructive ways offers a striking exercise in consumption that profits the few at the expense of the many.

In other words, for a select few, war pays dividends in ways that peace doesn’t. In a nutshell, or perhaps an artillery shell, war is anti-democratic, anti-progressive, anti-intellectual, and anti-human. Yet, as we know, history makes heroes out of its participants and celebrates mass murderers like Napoleon as “great captains.”

What the United States needs today is a new strategy of containment — not against communist expansion, as in the Cold War, but against war itself. What’s stopping us from containing war? You might say that, in some sense, we’ve grown addicted to it, which is true enough, but here are five additional reasons for war’s enduring presence in American life:

  • The delusional idea that Americans are, by nature, winners and that our wars are therefore winnable: No American leader wants to be labeled a “loser.” Meanwhile, such dubious conflicts — see: the Afghan War, now in its 18th year, with several more years, or even generations, to go — continue to be treated by the military as if they were indeed winnable, even though they visibly aren’t. No president, Republican or Democrat, not even Donald J. Trump, despite his promises that American soldiers will be coming home from such fiascos, has successfully resisted the Pentagon’s siren call for patience (and for yet more trillions of dollars) in the cause of ultimate victory, however poorly defined, farfetched, or far-off.
  • American society’s almost complete isolation from war’s deadly effects: We’re not being droned (yet). Our cities are not yet lying in ruins (though they’re certainly suffering from a lack of funding, as is our most essential infrastructure, thanks in part to the cost of those overseas wars). It’s nonetheless remarkable how little attention, either in the media or elsewhere, this country’s never-ending war-making gets here.
  • Unnecessary and sweeping secrecy: How can you resist what you essentially don’t know about? Learning its lesson from the Vietnam War, the Pentagon now classifies (in plain speak: covers up) the worst aspects of its disastrous wars. This isn’t because the enemy could exploit such details — the enemy already knows! — but because the American people might be roused to something like anger and action by it. Principled whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning have been imprisoned or otherwise dismissed or, in the case of Edward Snowden, pursued and indicted for sharing honest details about the calamitous Iraq War and America’s invasive and intrusive surveillance state. In the process, a clear message of intimidation has been sent to other would-be truth-tellers.
  • An unrepresentative government: Long ago, of course, Congress ceded to the presidency most of its constitutional powers when it comes to making war. Still, despite recent attempts to end America’s arms-dealing role in the genocidal Saudi war in Yemen (overridden by Donald Trump’s veto power), America’s duly elected representatives generally don’t represent the people when it comes to this country’s disastrous wars. They are, to put it bluntly, largely captives of (and sometimes on leaving politics quite literally go to work for) the military-industrial complex. As long as money is speech (thank you, Supreme Court!), the weapons makers are always likely to be able to shout louder in Congress than you and I ever will.
  • America’s persistent empathy gap. Despite our size, we are a remarkably insular nation and suffer from a serious empathy gap when it comes to understanding foreign cultures and peoples or what we’re actually doing to them. Even our globetrotting troops, when not fighting and killing foreigners in battle, often stay on vast bases, referred to in the military as “Little Americas,” complete with familiar stores, fast food, you name it. Wherever we go, there we are, eating our big burgers, driving our big trucks, wielding our big guns, and dropping our very big bombs. But what those bombs do, whom they hurt or kill, whom they displace from their homes and lives, these are things that Americans turn out to care remarkably little about.

All this puts me sadly in mind of a song popular in my youth, a time when Cat Stevens sang of a “peace train” that was “soundin’ louder” in America. Today, that peace train’s been derailed and replaced by an armed and armored one eternally prepared for perpetual war — and that train is indeed soundin’ louder to the great peril of us all.

Please read the rest of the article here at TomDispatch.com.

Memorial Day 1955 — And Today

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The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

W.J. Astore

How far we’ve come as a country.  Consider the following proclamation by President Dwight D. Eisenhower for Memorial Day in 1955:

“Whereas Memorial Day each year serves as a solemn reminder of the scourge of war and its bitter aftermath of sorrow; and Whereas this day has traditionally been devoted to paying homage to loved ones who lie in hallowed graves throughout the land… I, Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim Memorial Day, Monday, the thirtieth of May, 1955, as a day of Nation-wide prayer for permanent peace.”

Permanent peace?  What was that hippie peacenik president smoking?

I find it remarkable that talk of peace in America has almost completely disappeared from our public discourse.  Permanent war is instead seen as inevitable, the price of confronting evildoers around the world.

Yes, I know Ike’s record as president wasn’t perfect.  But compared to today’s presidents, whether Barack “Kill List” Obama or Donald “Make Genocidal Threats” Trump, Ike was positively pacific.

Memorial Day, as Ike said, is a time for us all to remember the sacrifices of those who fought and died for this country.  But it’s also a time, as Ike said, to work to eliminate the scourge of war.  For the best way to honor our war dead is to work to ensure their ranks aren’t expanded.

Sadly, as Colonel (retired) Andrew Bacevich notes at TomDispatch.com, those ranks do keep expanding.  The names of our latest war dead are memorialized on a little-known wall in Marseilles, Illinois (including the name of Bacevich’s son, who died serving in Iraq).  Like Ike, Bacevich knows the costs of war, and like Ike he’s not taken in by patriotic talk about noble sacrifices for “freedom.”  As he puts it:

Those whose names are engraved on the wall in Marseilles died in service to their country. Of that there is no doubt. Whether they died to advance the cause of freedom or even the wellbeing of the United States is another matter entirely. Terms that might more accurately convey why these wars began and why they have persisted for so long include oil, dominion, hubris, a continuing and stubborn refusal among policymakers to own up to their own stupendous folly, and the collective negligence of citizens who have become oblivious to where American troops happen to be fighting at any given moment and why. Some might add to the above list an inability to distinguish between our own interests and those of putative allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Those are strong words that all Americans should consider this Memorial Day weekend.  As we consider them, let’s also recall Ike’s 1955 prayer for peace.  And, even better, let’s act on it.

Read the rest of Andrew Bacevich’s article here at TomDispatch.

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Part of the Middle East Conflicts Memorial Wall in Marseilles, Illinois

A Few Comments on the Flag and the Pledge

W.J. Astore

When I was young, I kept a pamphlet in my room: “How to Respect and Display Our Flag.”  It was from the U.S. Marine Corps, dated March 1968.  I still have that pamphlet; here’s a photo of it:

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Some of its guidance is now (it saddens me to say) obsolete.  Consider the following: “Do not use the flag as a portion of a costume or athletic uniform.  Do not embroider it upon cushions or handkerchiefs nor print it on paper napkins or boxes.”

Nowadays, flags are everywhere.  They are on football helmets and baseball caps.  They are on bathing suits (!) and shirts, jackets and tops.  I once bought an ice cream cone at a baseball game in a paper wrapper decorated by the American flag.

Fifty years ago, there was a sense our flag was special, meaning you didn’t put one everywhere and on everything.  All these representations of the flag that you see today, especially those flag lapel pins most often seen on sportscasters and politicians, strike me as opportunistic and self-celebratory rather than respectable tributes to Old Glory.

My flag handbook also says, “When carried, the flag should always be aloft and free–never flat or horizontal.”  I suppose they couldn’t imagine in 1968 flags so gigantic that they could only be carried flat or horizontal.

A book of more recent vintage (2001), “United We Stand,” celebrates efforts during World War II to bring the nation together by marking the Fourth of July in 1942 with images of the flag on magazines.  One of my favorites from that time showcased Veronica Lake:

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From this book, I was reminded of the original “Pledge of Allegiance”:

I pledge allegiance to my Flag

and the Republic for which it stands,

one nation indivisible,

with liberty and justice for all.

The phrase “under God” was only added in 1954 at the height of McCarthyism.

I favor the original pledge.  If it was good enough for the “Greatest Generation” who fought and won World War II, it should be good enough for these times.

I was also reminded of a song that I rarely hear nowadays: “You’re a Grand Old Flag” by George M. Cohan (played, of course, by Jimmy Cagney in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” as mentioned on the cover above).  Remember the opening stanza of that song?

You’re a grand old flag.

You’re a high-flying flag

and forever in Peace may you wave.

“Forever in peace may you wave” — how come we don’t hear that sentiment today?

My Dad’s Silver Dollars

W.J. Astore

My dad left me two silver dollars.  They’re worth much in sentimental value (I’ll explain in a moment), but they also teach us something about how America has changed.

Here’s a photo of them.  Lady Liberty is on the front, an eagle is on the back.

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These were “peace” dollars issued in the aftermath of World War I.  (Note the word “peace” under the eagle.)  Imagine that: a coin issued by the USA dedicated to and celebrating peace!  It’s truly hard to imagine such a coin being issued today, and not only because our currency is now made only with base metal (a debased currency?).

In keeping with U.S. foreign policy today, an equivalent 2018 (faux silver) dollar would doubtless feature the god of war on the front with a menacing eagle clutching missiles, drones, and bombs on the back.

Anyway, I promised a story about my dad’s silver dollars, and I’m going to let him tell it:

“I have a silver dollar in my coin collection. Helen and I were courting at the time. At Nantasket beach [in Massachusetts] there was a glass container with prizes, candy, coins, etc. Also a crank on the unit which when turned controlled a flexible scoop. The idea was to work the scoop to pick up something of value. Well, I took a chance. It was like magic; the scoop just went down and picked up the silver dollar. I gave it to Ma as a remembrance. We’ve had it ever since.”

“The other silver dollar has a story also. A buddy in the service [Army] gave it to me for a birthday present [during World War II].”

After my dad died, these coins passed to me.  One is from 1922, the other from 1924.  I love the “peace” eagle they feature, though we know peace was not in the cards for long after the Great War.  And of course I love my dad’s stories of how he came to possess them.

When will America’s coinage next feature a tribute to the end of war and the promise of peace?

Memories of War

the-vietnam-memorial
Memories of War: So powerful yet often so fragmentary

W.J. Astore

Memories of war are powerful and fragmentary.  At a national level, we do best at remembering our own war dead while scarcely recognizing the damage to others.  This is one cost of nationalism.  Nationalism is violent, bigoted, and discriminatory.  It elevates a few at the expense of the many.  It fails fully to recognize common human experience, even one as shattering as war.

One example.  I’ve visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.  In seeing all those names of American dead on the wall, I was moved to tears.  It’s a remarkable memorial, but what it fails to capture is any sense of the magnitude of death from that war visited upon Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  As I wrote for Alternet, to visualize the extent of death from America’s war in Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese would need a wall that would be roughly 20 to 50 times as long as ours.

Think about that for a moment.  A wall perhaps 50 times as long as our Vietnam memorial wall.  It’s a staggering mental image.  Sadly, today in America the only wall garnering much media interest is Trump’s wall along our border with Mexico, yet another manifestation of nationalist bigotry and bias.

John Dower challenges us to think differently.  To explore our common humanity.  To remember the war dead of other nations and peoples, and to record the true cost of America’s wars, both to others and to ourselves.  His latest article at TomDispatch.com explores how Americans both remember and forget their wars.  Here’s an excerpt:

While it is natural for people and nations to focus on their own sacrifice and suffering rather than the death and destruction they themselves inflict, in the case of the United States such cognitive astigmatism is backlighted by the country’s abiding sense of being exceptional, not just in power but also in virtue. In paeans to “American exceptionalism,” it is an article of faith that the highest values of Western and Judeo-Christian civilization guide the nation’s conduct — to which Americans add their country’s purportedly unique embrace of democracy, respect for each and every individual, and stalwart defense of a “rules-based” international order.

Such self-congratulation requires and reinforces selective memory. “Terror,” for instance, has become a word applied to others, never to oneself. And yet during World War II, U.S. and British strategic-bombing planners explicitly regarded their firebombing of enemy cities as terror bombing, and identified destroying the morale of noncombatants in enemy territory as necessary and morally acceptable. Shortly after the Allied devastation of the German city of Dresden in February 1945, Winston Churchill, whose bust circulates in and out of the presidential Oval Office in Washington (it is currently in), referred to the “bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts.”

Too often, Americans believe they’re waging a war on terror, forgetting that war itself is terror.  That war itself is evil.  That doesn’t mean that war is never justified, as it was, I believe, in the struggle against Nazi tyranny in World War II.  Even in justifiable wars, however, we need to recognize that war breeds corruption; that war, in essence, is corruption, a corruption of the human spirit, of a humanity which should be held in common and nourished, but which during war is degraded if not destroyed.

John Dower recognizes this.  It’s a theme he explores in his new book, The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War Two.  Consider it a primer on war’s many corruptions, and a precis of America’s tendency toward a nationalism of callous indifference when it comes to the damages we inflict on others.  It’s not happy reading, but then again wars shouldn’t be a subject for happiness.

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A remarkable primer and meditation on America’s endless wars

Wars and rumors of war seem always to be with us.  Some would say they’re an inevitable part of the human condition.  Our historical record seems to support that grim conclusion.  Yet there is another way, a more pacific path, a path toward peace.  But to walk that path, we must first fully recognize the tangled undergrowth of war that imperils our every footstep.  Dower’s latest book helps us to do just that.

Where’s the Anti-War Movement?

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Thousands of people with signs of peace gather on Library Mall for the start of an anti-war rally protesting a potential United States-led war against Iraq. Protesters later marched up State Street to the Wisconsin State Capitol Building. ©UW-Madison University Communications 608/262-0067 Photo by: Jeff Miller

W.J. Astore

Yesterday, Ira Chernus had a stimulating article at TomDispatch.com in which he noted the present lack of an American anti-war movement.  When it comes to war and foreign policy, Americans face a Hobson’s choice: the Democrats with drones and Special Ops and bombing against evildoers, or the Republicans with even more drones and Special Ops and bombing against even more evildoers.  The American master narrative, Chernus noted, is essentially all war.

He’s right about this, and I think it’s mainly for five reasons:

  1. The military draft is gone, so our youth can safely (they think) ignore America’s never-ending wars. In Vietnam, with the draft, most of our youth didn’t have the luxury of apathy.  Today, our youth have little personal incentive (as yet) to push back against the prevailing war narrative.
  2. Militarism.  Creeping militarism has shifted the American narrative rightwards.  In the Vietnam period, General Curtis LeMay’s “bomb them back to the stone age” was a fringe opinion; now it’s mainstream with “carpet bombing” Cruz and Trump and Rubio, the “top three” Republican presidential contenders after the Iowa caucuses.
  3. The Democrats have also shifted rightwards, so much so that now both major political parties embrace endless war. War, in short, has been normalized and removed from partisan politics.  As Chernus documents, you simply can’t get an alternative narrative from the U.S. political mainstream.  For that, you have to look to much smaller political parties, e.g. the Green Party.
  4. The U.S. mainstream media has been thoroughly co-opted by corporations that profit from war.  Anti-war ideas simply don’t get published; or, if they do, they’re dismissed as unserious.  I simply can’t imagine any of today’s TV talking heads coming out against the war on terror like Walter Cronkite came out in the 1960s against Vietnam. There is simply no push back from the U.S. media.
  5. Finally, a nebulous factor that’s always lurking: FEAR.  The popular narrative today is that terrorists may kill you at any time right here in America.  So you must be ready to “lockdown“; you must be ready to “shelter in place.”  You must always defer to the police and military to keep you safe.  You must fully fund the military or YOU WILL DIE. Repeated incantations of fear reinforce the master narrative of war.

Chernus makes many good points about how America’s constant warring in the Middle East only feeds radical Islam.  In short, it’s vital to develop a new narrative, not only because the current one feeds war and death, but also because it’s fated to fail.

I doubt pacifism will fly in warrior corp USA.  But why not containment?  Containment worked against the Soviet Union, or so most Americans believe.  If it worked against the far greater threat posed by the USSR, why shouldn’t it work against radical Islam?

Containment suggests several concrete actions: American troops should pull out of the Middle East.  Bombing and drone strikes should stop.  Establish a cordon sanitaire around the area.  Lead a diplomatic effort to resolve the conflicts.  And recognize that violent civil and ideological wars within Islam may need to burn themselves out.

One thing is certain: Because violent U.S. actions are most likely to act as accelerants to radical Islam, we need to stop attacking.  Now.

Yes, the U.S. has a responsibility to help the peoples of the region.  American actions helped to create the mess.  But you don’t “solve” the mess by blowing more people and things to smithereens.

Containment, diplomacy, humanitarian aid.  Not a chest-thumping course of action celebrated by the likes of Trump or Cruz or Clinton, but a new master narrative that would be more likely to spare lives and reduce the chaos in the Middle East.

I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier: A Mother’s Plea for Peace

My copy of the sheet music (1915)
My copy of the sheet music (1915)

W.J. Astore

The year was 1915.  Europe, indeed much of the world, was embroiled in the devastating Great (or World) War.  Under President Woodrow Wilson, the United States was proud to have stayed out of the war, the massive bloodletting of which seemed peculiarly European, an “Old World” form of militarized madness that most Americans wanted no part of.  In fact, in 1916 Wilson would be reelected in large part because he had kept America out of Europe’s great war.  (Of course, the very next year the United States did choose to join the war effort against Germany.)

Yet in 1915 the idea of celebrating the military, nobilizing the military experience, finding higher purpose and meaning in war, was the furthest thing from the minds of most Americans.  Unlike the America of 2015, there was no mantra of “support our troops,” no publicity campaigns that encouraged citizens to “salute” the troops.  What publicity existed discouraged Americans from getting involved in war, a fact exhibited by some old sheet music that I recently ran across in a local thrift shop.

“I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier,” copyright 1915 and “respectfully dedicated to Every Mother – Everywhere,” shows a mother protectively holding her grown son as visions of battle assault her mind near the family hearth.  It was a popular song; you can listen to an old Edison recording here.

The lyrics are as simple as they are telling:

Ten million soldiers to the war have gone,

Who may never return again.

Ten million mothers’ hearts must break,

For the ones who died in vain.

Head bowed down in sorrow in her lonely years,

I heard a mother murmur thro’ her tears:

Chorus:

I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier,

I brought him up to be my pride and joy,

Who dares to put a musket on his shoulder,

To shoot some other mother’s darling boy?

Let nations arbitrate their future troubles,

It’s time to lay the sword and gun away,

There’d be no war today,

If mothers all would say,

I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier.

(Chorus)

What victory can cheer a mother’s heart,

When she looks at her blighted home?

What victory can bring her back,

All she cared to call her own.

Let each mother answer in the years to be,

Remember that my boy belongs to me!

Nowadays, such lyrics seem hopelessly quaint and naïve, or even cowardly and defeatist.  America must stand up to evildoers around the world.  We must fight ISIS and other elements of radical Islam.  We must “stay the course” in Afghanistan.  We must maintain large and deadly military forces, ever ready to slay other mothers’ sons and daughters in the name of making peace.  Or so we are told, almost daily, by our leaders.

Indeed, our new national chorus goes something like this:  Let’s have another drink of war!  We haven’t had too many.  Keep the bullets coming and the blood flowing.  That is the way to victory!

But as we dream about “victory” by arms, we should recall the line from “I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier”:

What victory can bring her back, All she cared to call her own.

Unlike in 1915, that’s a question that’s never asked in today’s America.