What Would My Parents Think of this Election?

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My parents in the 1970s

W.J. Astore

In 1976, I remember my mom voted for Jimmy Carter for president.  It surprised me because I was a fan of Gerald Ford, the Republican candidate.  Both Carter and Ford were decent men, and their debates were informative and issues-oriented.  Back then, the big scandal was Jimmy Carter’s admission, in an interview for Playboy magazine, that he had lusted in his heart. What innocent times!  Two generations later, we have a Republican candidate, Donald Trump, who by his own words has done far more than lust in his heart.

My mom would have been appalled by Trump (as are many people today).  My dad, I think, would have found Trump objectionable and shallow.  One of my dad’s favorite sayings was “the empty barrel makes the most noise.”  He didn’t respect other men who bragged and bellowed about themselves.  And he didn’t like anyone who was a sore loser, those who, when they lost, resorted to “sour grapes.”  Even before Trump has lost (if he does), he’s already resorted to sour grapes, claiming the election is “rigged” against him.

I know my parents would be against Trump.  Would they be for Hillary?  I don’t know.  I think my mom would have voted for Hillary, respecting her struggles as a woman for equality and fair treatment in a man’s game (and politics in America is still very much a man’s game, despite important strides made by women).  My dad?  When in doubt, he voted for the Democratic Party.  As a firefighter, he was a union man who knew first-hand the hard experience of factory workers and the penury of a hand-to-mouth existence during the Great Depression.

Resuscitating my parents to vote in 2016: yes, it’s fantasy, one that I share with Tom Engelhardt, who wrote this telling article at TomDispatch.com on next week’s election and what his parents would have thought of the whole spectacle.  To me, two aspects of election 2016 are especially telling when compared to 1976:

  1.  On foreign policy and national defense, Hillary Clinton is running to the right, not only of Jimmy Carter, but of Gerald Ford, a moderate Republican.
  2. Donald Trump not only lacks the fundamental decency of Carter and Ford: he lacks any experience in public service.  His entire life has been dedicated to making money. This may qualify him to run a business, but it doesn’t qualify him to run a country and to represent a people.

A few more words on Trump and what his rise represents.  Trump is the candidate of casino capitalism.  He’s the logical terminus of a system that wants to run everything for profit, winner-take-all.  Such public systems and concerns as education, health care, the prison system, even the military, are increasingly run as businesses, often privatized, the operative words being “efficiency” and “productivity” and “growth.”

With so many sectors of American society being privatized and run as for-profit businesses, with corporations being enshrined as superpower citizens with especially deep pockets to influence public elections, with the media also almost completely privatized and also run for-profit, is it any wonder a candidate like Trump has emerged as the business leader to “make America great again”?  Americans used to call men like Trump “robber-barons.”  Now, some Americans treat Trump as a savior.

In America, we seem to measure societal progress strictly in terms of economic growth as measured by GDP and the stock market.  Such measures are indicative not of true progress but of our shallow desires, our preference for glitzy materialism.  Again, isn’t Trump the very embodiment of insatiable appetite, bottomless greed, and casino capitalism?

I know my parents — decent members of the working classes — wouldn’t have voted for him.  Hillary, I think, would have been their (reluctant) choice.  And I think they’d hope for better candidates in 2020, or, at the very least, a political process that takes vitally important issues like climate change seriously.

Seriousness of purpose is what we need in America, along with courage, honesty, and strength of mind. Let’s strive for those in the aftermath of this depressing election season.

Words about War Matter

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W.J. Astore

In my new article for TomDispatch.com, I argue that words about war matter.  A clear sign of America’s post-democratic military is the language our leaders use when they talk about war.  Specifically, words, euphemisms, and expressions that muddle or obfuscate meaning while excluding most Americans from the debate.  Acronyms like VUCA and 4GW and COIN, moreover, create a specialized language that suggests war is beyond the understanding of regular folk.  Meanwhile, euphemisms and rhetoric hide the truth about war.

In a democracy, how are proper decisions to be made about war if the truth is deliberately cloaked or hidden?

The entire article is here at TomDispatch.com; what follows is the last section of my article, featuring a strong contribution from Mike Murry, a regular contributor here at Bracing Views.

The proliferation of euphemisms, acronyms, and neologisms has no end.  You might start with “defense” instead of “war” department, followed by “homeland” security, the “PATRIOT” act, and on and on.  I still recall Ronald Reagan’s christening of the MX nuclear missile, with its multiple warheads capable of unleashing city-wide genocides, as the “Peacekeeper.”

The United States may be losing our many “overseas contingency operations,” but when it comes to manipulating words, it’s truly “mission accomplished.”

The Truth About “Progress” in America’s Wars

These days, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter often resorts to cancer imagery when describing the Islamic state. “Parent tumor” is an image he especially favors — that is, terrorism as a cancer that America’s militarized surgeons need to attack and destroy before it metastasizes and has “children.”  (Think of the ISIS franchises in Libya, where the organization has recently doubled in size, Afghanistan, and Yemen.)  Hence the proliferation of “surgical strikes” by drones and similarly “surgical” Special Ops raids, both of which you could think of as America’s equivalent of white blood cells in its war on the cancer of terrorism.

But is terrorism really a civilizational cancer that can be “cured” via the most aggressive “kinetic” treatments?  Can the U.S. render the world cancer-free?  For that’s what Carter’s language implies.  And how does one measure “progress” in a “war” on the cancer of ISIS?  Indeed, from an outsider’s perspective, the proliferation of U.S. military bases around the world (there are now roughly 800), as well as of drone strikes, Special Ops raids, and massive weapons exports might have a cancerous look to them.  In other words, what constitutes a “cancer” depends on one’s perspective — and perhaps one’s definition of world “health,” too.

The very notion of progress in America’s recent wars is one that a colleague, Michael Murry, recently critiqued.  A U.S. Navy Vietnam War Veteran, he wrote me that, for his favorite military euphemism, “I have to go with ‘progress’ as incessantly chanted by the American military brass in Iraq and Afghanistan…

“We go on hearing about 14 years of ‘progress’ which, to hear our generals tell it, would vanish in an instant should the United States withdraw its forces and let the locals and their neighbors sort things out. Since when do ‘fragile gains’ equate to ‘progress’? Who in their right mind would invest rivers of blood and trillions of dollars in ‘fragility’?  Now that I think of it, we also have the euphemistic expression of ‘drawdown’ substituting for ‘withdrawal’ which in turn substitutes for ‘retreat.’ The U.S. military and the civilian government it has browbeaten into hapless acquiescence simply cannot face the truth of their monumental failures and so must continually bastardize our language in a losing — almost comical — attempt to stay one linguistic step ahead of the truth.”

Progress, as Murry notes, basically means nothing when such “gains,” in the words of David Petraeus during the surge months in Iraq in 2007, are both “fragile” and “reversible.” Indeed, Petraeus repeated the same two words in 2011 to describe similar U.S. “progress” in Afghanistan, and today it couldn’t be clearer just how much “progress” was truly made there.  Isn’t it time for government officials to stop banging the drums of war talk in favor of “progress” when none exists?

Think, for instance, of the American-trained (and now re-trained) Iraqi security forces. Each year U.S. officials swear that the Iraqi military is getting ever closer to combat readiness, but much like one of Zeno’s paradoxes, the half-steps that military takes under American tutelage never seem to get it into fighting shape.  Progress, eternally touted, seems always to lead to regress, eternally explained away, as that army regularly underperforms or its units simply collapse, often abandoning their American-supplied weaponry to the enemy.  Here we are, 12 years after the U.S. began training the Iraqi military and once again it seems to be cratering, this time while supposedly on the road to retaking Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, from its Islamic State occupiers.  Progress, anyone?

In short, the dishonesty of the words the U.S. military regularly wields illustrates the dishonesty of its never-ending wars. After so many years of failure and frustration, of wars that aren’t won and terrorist movements that only seem to spread as its leaders are knocked off, isn’t it past time for Americans to ditch phrases like “collateral damage,” “enemy noncombatant,” “no-fly zone” (or even worse, “safe zone”), and “surgical strike” and adopt a language, however grim, that accurately describes the military realities of this era?

Words matter, especially words about war.  So as a change of pace, instead of the usual bloodless euphemisms and vapid acronyms, perhaps the U.S. government could tell the shocking and awful truth to the American people in plain language about the realities and dangers of never-ending war.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular.  He blogs at Bracing Views.

 

War Is Becoming Obsolete — In 1884

At least coins were more attractive in 1884 (Morgan silver dollar)
At least coins were more attractive in 1884 (Morgan silver dollar)

W.J. Astore

One of the occupational hazards of being a historian is reading old books.  The one in front of me is John Fiske’s The Destiny of Man (1884).  Fiske was an American philosopher and popular writer on Darwinism, Spencerism, and many other representative isms of his day.  Like many thinkers of the late 19th century, he believed in inevitable progress as well as the inherent superiority of men like himself.

From the vantage point of 2013, what is perhaps most striking about Fiske was his optimism that war was coming to an end.  In his words:

The nineteenth century, which has witnessed an unprecedented development of industrial civilization, with its attendant arts and sciences, has also witnessed an unprecedented diminution of the primeval spirit of militancy.  It is not that we have got rid of great wars, but that the relative proportion of human strength which has been employed in warfare has been remarkably less than in any previous age … In almost every case [of war since the Revolutionary War and Napoleon] the result has been to strengthen the pacific tendencies of modern society …[War] has now become narrowly confined in time and space, it no longer comes home to everybody’s door, and, in so far as it is still tolerated…it has become quite ancillary to the paramount needs of industrial civilization …the final extinction of warfare is only a question of time.

War was coming to an end, to be replaced by the reign of law, Fiske predicted in 1884.  Thirty years later, the horrors of World War I came to visit (in one way or another) almost everyone’s door, with World War II proving an even more persistent caller.  Today, the United States finds itself in a self-defined, and apparently endless, “war on terror.”  What happened to Fiske’s pacific progress?

We all have blind spots.  For Fiske one of those was the European imperialism of his day, which he didn’t treat as war since inferior brutes needed civilizing by Whites.  Another was his belief in inevitable progress and the perfectibility of man, as shown by “the pacific principle of federalism” and the “due process of law,” which he believed would settle future disputes without war.

Rather than bashing Fiske, it’s perhaps more useful to ask what our blind spots might be.  American exceptionalism is certainly one.  Just as Fiske believed that the White man was inherently superior – the culmination and fruition of evolution and civilization – many Americans seem to believe that the United States is the best nation in the world, the most technologically advanced, the most favored by God.  This belief that “When America does it, it’s OK; when another country does it, it’s wrong” is one that’s opened many a Pandora’s Box.  A second blind spot is our belief that more and better technology will solve the most intractable problems.  Consider global warming.  It’s most definitely happening, driven in part by unbridled consumption of goods and fossil fuels.  Our solution?  Deny the problem exists, or avoid responsibility even as our country goes whole hog into boosting production of new (and dirtier) sources of fossil fuels via hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

Like Fiske, Americans by nature believe in their own exceptionalism.  Like Fiske, Americans by nature are generally optimistic.  But Fiske dismissed the horrors of imperialism even as he missed the looming disaster of mass industrialized killing in two world wars.

What are we dismissing?  What are we missing?  I’ve suggested we’re dismissing the blowback produced by our own exceptionalism even as we’re missing the peril we pose to the health of our planet.  I encourage you to add your thoughts below.