America as a POW Nation

The political button in question (Photo by Tori LaGarde)

W.J. Astore

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 warembrace 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.

Torture: A Conservative Defense of Bush/Cheney

Obama

W.J. Astore

About seven years ago, I had an impassioned debate with a conservative friend about whether the U.S. had engaged in torture and, if we had, whether it had been effective.  My position was clear: we had engaged in torture, and it was both wrong and counterproductive.  My friend was unconvinced.  His arguments, which I detail below, provide a contrary perspective on the issue of torture as well as insight into the rationale of those who supported Dick Cheney’s unapologetic stance on torture.

(My friend is now deceased.  I don’t believe he would object to having his views outlined here, but I do believe he would wish to remain anonymous.  I have edited his comments for clarity, putting them in the form of a list.)

1.  Torture. The very word makes us feel a bit uncomfortable. Yet we have yet to come to anywhere near an agreement on exactly what the word means. To some it is hot irons, the rack, and beatings. At the other end are those who maintain the act of keeping prisoners at a facility like Gitmo, or indeed at any facility, is in of itself a form of torture.

I am not in favor of categorically using physical means to obtain intelligence from captives. From the tone of the [White House] memos [on torture], and from what I have read of the views of those in both the White House and the Pentagon, no one there was in favor of that approach either.  That is clearly not in the best interests of anyone. At the same time, it is folly to advertise [to the enemy] exactly what we will and will not do.

Clearly, from the very fact that the memos exist at all, and that questions were asked requiring legal answers, this subject was not approached in a cavalier fashion by anyone [in the Bush Administration].

It was St. Augustine who first offered the admonition that you may not do evil that good might come of it.  But he also said that it is at time permissible to tolerate a lesser evil to prevent a great evil.

2.  Waterboarding did yield results that stopped an attack on US soil. I believe that Cheney is correct in asking that further memos be released that either prove or disprove that point. I also believe that these episodes of waterboarding are being presented [by the media] out of context and without perspective.  In sum, if waterboarding resulted in obtaining info that did indeed foil an operation against the U.S., then I see no problem with having used it.

3.  The Geneva Conventions [on the treatment of prisoners of war] do not apply here. Terrorists are not soldiers of any state.  They do not wear uniforms.  We have a new paradigm to which we must adjust, both in the pure military sense, as well as the way we deal with those we capture.

Are such men to be treated as soldiers?  Are they to be treated as criminals?  Are we to extend such niceties as the Geneva conventions to those who would offer the exact opposite to those who would come under their control?

If we treat all captives as if they were soldiers, under Geneva Convention rules, that would create some problems, and would also effectively end the conversation. There would be no interrogations. On the other hand, if we treat this as a war, and all captives as POWs, then we are well within our rights to keep those same persons under confinement until the war ends.

If we treat these captives as criminals, we have other problems. First, and this may sound silly, but I doubt that they were read their Miranda rights as they were taken prisoner. But if they are to be treated as criminals, then other rules apply as well, and one of those rules is the right for authorities to question them.

As it stands now, how you treat terrorists is open to debate. They are clearly not soldiers. They are also not actually criminals either.

4.  The nature of the enemy: What we have now is a very different paradigm. These are not State actors. There is no fear on their part of betraying their “State,” or of facing consequences relating to betraying the State. There is no “State” in the first place.  These are Islamo-fascist terrorists, who have no state, only a religious conviction from which they draw their motivation.

We also know that they view cooperation and diplomacy and forbearance as weakness.

We know how totalitarian thugs act and react. We know what drives them, and we know what stops them.  We have had ample experience over the centuries.

5.  Abu Ghraib in Iraq, while deplorable, also did not represent an attempt to garner intelligence. And its commander was sacked.  I take exception to any comparisons with such places as the Hanoi Hilton [in North Vietnam]. The objective there was not information, but rather confession.

And what do we do to detainees who, after being treated as “guests,” respond by throwing feces and attempting to assault US guards?  Is no physical response to be permitted at all?

6.  This media focus, some would say obsession, with torture is more about attacking the Bush Administration than it is about protecting the rights of prisoners.

7.  While I have concerns about the prisoners who are the recipients of torture and abuse, I also worry about those on the other side. The act of abusing another human being is not healthy, and leads to many psychological problems. I worry about the effect any of this activity will have on our own people.

8.  The validity of information obtained under torture is always suspect. But we come back then to the very definition of torture. Is the stress of being questioned in of itself a form of torture?  And again, we are not talking about soliciting confessions; we are talking about obtaining and confirming information, from various persons and from different sources. If we decide that we cannot in any way, shape, or form question captives, then we might as well just treat them as we would soldiers. And that would mean keeping them locked up for a very long time.”

If I were to summarize my friend’s views, I’d say he believed that torture was regrettable but necessary to keep America safe, that those who were making a big deal about it were motivated by animus against the Bush Administration, and that those who objected to torture in principle didn’t realize the nature of the enemy, i.e. “Islamo-fascist thugs” who had to be “stopped,” even at the cost of committing lesser evils (torture) to prevent greater evils (attacks on innocent Americans).

And I’d say his views, politicized and biased as they were, were and are widely held in America, which is exactly why the Obama Administration chose not to prosecute anyone for the crime of torture.  “We tortured some folks,” as Obama memorably said, but let’s look forward, not backward.  So, in essence, Obama pretty much agrees with my conservative friend.

Update: Another thought: this debate over torture is much like the current debate over the renewal of The Patriot Act. The Obama Administration is trotting out the usual suspects to argue that, to defend ourselves from Islamo-fascist thugs, we must reauthorize the Patriot Act and consent to unlimited surveillance.

It’s yet another version of “we had to destroy the village to save it.”  In this case, it’s “we must empower authoritarian and secretive governmental agencies to preserve democracy and freedom in America.”  Good luck with that!