America Needs a Stronger Anti-War Movement

W.J. Astore

Remember that saying from the Vietnam War era, “Suppose they gave a war and no one came?”  Considering present events, we need to modify that.  Suppose they kept giving us war after war and no one cared?

It’s remarkable that, even as President Trump expands our military involvement overseas, there is no significant anti-war protest movement in America.  Why is this?  Perhaps Americans don’t recognize the reality of today’s wars?

Tom Engelhardt has a great article today in which he reflects about World War II, the Vietnam War, and current conflicts around the world.  He ends his article with this powerful question:

In many ways, from its founding the United States has been a nation made by wars. The question in this century is: Will its citizenry and its form of government be unmade by them?

The answer to that is “yes,” if we continue largely to ignore them.

no-more-war
Protesters who shouted “No more war!” at the Democratic National Convention were silenced

Let me give you an example; it may sound trivial, but I think it’s indicative.  I just finished watching a seven-part series on HBO, “Big Little Lies.”  Set on the Monterey peninsula in California, the series revolved around several sets of mostly affluent, mostly White, parents and the travails of their privileged children.  The series did tackle serious issues, especially spousal abuse, and did feature fine acting.  What it did not feature was any sense that the U.S. has a military, let alone that America is at war around the world.

Wait a minute, you’re saying.  Why should a series featuring mostly affluent adults and their precocious children have said anything about the U.S. military and its wars?  Because of the setting.  I lived in Monterey for three years while serving as the military dean of students at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center at the Presidio of Monterey.  I also taught at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.  The U.S. military has a high profile there, but you’d never know it from watching “Big Little Lies.”  From that series, you’d think nearly everyone lived in sleek and expensive houses gazing out on the Pacific Ocean.  You’d never think that American adults had any concern whatsoever about what their military was up to around the world.  And perhaps that’s even true.

One teenager in “Big Little Lies” stirs family controversy by plotting to sell her virginity on the Internet to raise awareness of human trafficking.  (She eventually backs down.)  Perhaps she might have protested America’s wars instead?

So, why aren’t Americans protesting war?  Besides the unreality of these wars to the “Big Little Lies” crowd, here are some reasons that come to mind:

  • They’re couched as “necessary” wars against terrorism.
  • Unlike WWII or Vietnam, there’s no draft, hence the wars directly impact only American “volunteers” and their families/friends.
  • Recent U.S. casualties are much lower than they were from 2004-10 before, during, and after the “surges” in Iraq and Afghanistan, and much lower than in Vietnam. Americans care most when Americans die.  Witness the reaction to one Navy SEAL dying in a raid in Yemen.  If comparatively few American are dying, we don’t care much.
  • There is no major anti-war political party in the USA; the Democrats have embraced war as tightly as the Republicans. In short, there’s no strong rallying point against war.
  • The U.S. military has developed a form of war, based on technologies such as “smart” munitions and drones, that at least to us seems antiseptic and low cost.
  • American exceptionalism also plays a role, the government/mainstream media spin that Americans always enter wars reluctantly and only to do good.
  • Fear.  And nationalism (America First!) disguised as patriotism.

Another crucial reason: Many if not most Americans are remarkably disconnected from their government and its actions.  As Engelhardt wrote in another article (on the legendary journalist I. F. Stone):

What’s missing is any sense of connection to the government, any sense that it’s “ours” or that we the people matter. In its place—and you can thank successive administrations for this—is the deepest sort of pessimism and cynicism about a national security state and war-making machine beyond our control. And why protest what you can’t change?

Engelhardt wrote this in 2015, when Barack Obama was still commander-in-chief.  Now we have Trump and his unmerry crew, operating in their own bellicose reality.  In 2017 even more Americans are disconnected from the government, which they don’t see as “theirs.”  (Meanwhile, those who do see Trump and Crew as “theirs” probably embrace a bellicose approach to foreign policy.)

Disconnecting from government does not mean one should disconnect from its wars.  Those wars are being waged in our name; it’s up to us to work to end them.

Afterthoughts: Many Americans think that anti-war protest is somehow against “our” troops.  Yet, what could be better for our troops than fewer wars and less fighting?  Also, it’s foolhardy to give the U.S. military a blank check when it comes to war.  We the people are supposed to control our military, which is why America’s Founders gave Congress the power to declare war and to control the budget.  Finally, whether they know it or not, the Pentagon and its generals seriously need push-back from the American people.  When I watch Congressional hearings, most of our representatives are at pains to praise the military, instead of challenging it with tough questions.

Our military gets enough kudos!  What it needs is serious criticism, not unstinting praise along with buckets of money.

The Pledge of Allegiance: What It Means

US_Flag_Backlit

W.J. Astore

I read old stuff.  Heck, I’m a historian: that’s what I’m supposed to do.  So I was reading an old pamphlet on “The Indiana World War Memorial” (circa 1940) and came across the Pledge of Allegiance as it was recited before McCarthyism reared its ugly head in the 1950s:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

You’ll notice what’s missing: that whole idea of “under God.”  Those words were added in the early 1950s as a way of contrasting God-fearing (and God-favored, if you’ll recall American exceptionalism) Americans to the godless Communists.

You’ll recall, of course, that our nation was founded in part on religious freedom.  The idea you could worship any god or gods you wanted to, or none at all.  We should return to the original “godless” pledge.  It served us quite well in World War II; it would serve us quite well today.

After all, Americans have no monopoly on God.  Furthermore, God does not uniquely bless us.  To believe that is to violate the real Ten Commandments, for to believe you are uniquely blessed by God is tantamount to raising yourself to the level of God.  No — as Abraham Lincoln wisely said, we must not assume that God is on our side; we must pray that we are on His side.

Speaking of the Ten Commandments, Tom Engelhardt at TomDispatch.com has a compelling list of his “ten commandments” in America’s ongoing war on terror.  Like Lincoln, Engelhardt is wise enough not to assume that God is always chanting “USA!  USA!”

Here are Engelhardt’s “ten commandments” for America and for a better world.  I urge you to read the rest of his article at this link:

1. Thou shalt not torture: Torture of every horrific sort in these years seems to have been remarkably ineffective in producing useful information for the state.  Even if it were proved effective in breaking up al-Qaeda plots, however, it would still have been both a desperately illegal (if unpunished) act and a foreign policy disaster of the first order.

2. Thou shalt not send drones to assassinate anyone, American or not: The ongoing U.S. drone assassination campaigns, while killing individual terrorists, have driven significant numbers of people in the backlands of the planet into the arms of terror outfits and so only increased their size and appeal. Without a doubt, such drone strikes represent a global war of, not on, terror. In the process, they have turned the president into our assassin-in-chief and us into an assassin nation.

3. Thou shalt not invade another country: D’oh!

4. Thou shalt not occupy another country: By the way, how did that work out the last two times the U.S. tried it?

5. Thou shalt not upgrade thy nuclear arsenal: The U.S. has now committed itself to a trillion-dollar, decades-long upgrade of its vast arsenal.  If any significant portion of it were ever used, it would end human life as we know it on this planet and so should be considered a singular prospective crime against humanity. After years in which the only American nuclear focus was on a country — Iran — with no nuclear weapons, that this has happened without serious debate or discussion is in itself criminal.

6. Thou shalt not intercept the communications of thy citizens or others all over the world or pursue the elaboration of a global surveillance state based on criminal acts: There seems to be no place the NSA has been unwilling to break into in order to surveil the planet.  For unimaginable reams of information that have seemingly been of next to no actual use, the NSA and the national security state have essentially outlawed privacy and cracked open various amendments to the Constitution.  No information is worth such a price.

7. Thou shalt not be free of punishment for crimes of state: In these years of genuine criminality, official Washington has become a crime-free zone.  No matter the seriousness of the act, none — not one committed in the name of the state in the post-9/11 era, no matter how heinous — has been brought into a courtroom.

8. Thou shalt not use a massive system of secret classification to deprive Americans of all real knowledge of acts of state: In 2011, the U.S. classified 92 million documents and the shroud of secrecy over the business of the “people’s” government has only grown worse in the years since.  Increasingly, for our own “safety” we are only supposed to know what the government prefers us to know.  This represents, of course, a crime against democracy.

9. Thou shalt not act punitively toward those who want to let Americans in on what the national security state is doing in their name: The fierce and draconian campaign the Obama administration has launched against leakers and whistleblowers is unprecedented in our history.  It is a growing challenge to freedom of the press and to the citizen’s right to know.

10. Thou shalt not infringe on the rights of the citizenry to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: Need I even explain?”

Why not make a pledge, America, to these “commandments”?  For they will help us to ensure liberty and justice for all.

America’s Global Security State

A golem to smite our enemies; until it becomes our enemy
A golem to smite enemies; until it becomes the enemy

W.J. Astore

“Global reach, global power”: that was one motto of the U.S. Air Force when I was on active duty.  “A global force for good”: that’s the new motto in advertisements for the U.S. Navy.  Note that word: global.  For the ambitions of the U.S. government and military transcend national security: they truly are global ambitions of dominance, which is exactly what Tom Engelhardt documents so fully in his new book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Haymarket Books).

Engelhardt powerfully documents the growing power of a “shadow government,” a government shrouded in secrecy (and which routinely classifies 100 million documents per year), a government that relentlessly prosecutes anyone who tries to lift this shroud of secrecy, a government that continues to grow in size and power despite, or rather because of, its failures.  It’s a government of intelligence agencies and Special Forces and drone strikes and private military contractors and a 1000+ military bases overseas and carrier task forces and rendition/black sites, a government that divides the globe into major military commands like CENTCOM and AFRICOM and NORTHCOM, a government that can’t think of the “homeland” without adding the word “security” and lots of guns and tanks.

This week, Engelhardt introduced his new book at TomDispatch with the following shocker:

“What are the odds? You put about $68 billion annually into a maze of 17 major intelligence outfits. You build them glorious headquarters.  You create a global surveillance state for the ages. You listen in on your citizenry and gather their communications in staggering quantities.  Your employees even morph into avatars and enter video-game landscapes, lest any Americans betray a penchant for evil deeds while in entertainment mode. You collect information on visits to porn sites just in case, one day, blackmail might be useful. You pass around naked photos of them just for… well, the salacious hell of it.  Your employees even use aspects of the system you’ve created to stalk former lovers and, within your arcane world, that act of ‘spycraft’ gains its own name: LOVEINT.

“You listen in on foreign leaders and politicians across the planet.  You bring on board hundreds of thousands of crony corporate employees, creating the sinews of an intelligence-corporate complex of the first order.  You break into the ‘backdoors’ of the data centers of major Internet outfits to collect user accounts.  You create new outfits within outfits, including an ever-expanding secret military and intelligence crew embedded inside the military itself (and not counted among those 17 agencies).  Your leaders lie to Congress and the American people without, as far as we can tell, a flicker of self-doubt.  Your acts are subject to secret courts, which only hear your versions of events and regularly rubberstamp them — and whose judgments and substantial body of lawmaking are far too secret for Americans to know about.”

And yet despite all the trillions invested in America’s global security state, we’re no safer today than we were before 9/11.  Indeed, we’re less safe in a thoroughly militarized world in which Americans increasingly find their rights being abridged in the false name of security.

A painful irony is that however much they fail (like in their recent failure to predict the rise of ISIS), America’s global security state continues to grow.  As Engelhardt notes:

“Keep in mind that the twenty-first-century version of intelligence began amid a catastrophic failure: much crucial information about the 9/11 hijackers and hijackings was ignored or simply lost in the labyrinth.  That failure, of course, led to one of the great intelligence expansions, or even explosions, in history.  (And mind you, no figure in authority in the national security world was axed, demoted, or penalized in any way for 9/11 and a number of them were later given awards and promoted.)  However they may fail, when it comes to their budgets, their power, their reach, their secrecy, their careers, and their staying power, they have succeeded impressively.

“You could, of course, say that the world is simply a hard place to know and the future, with its eternal surprises, is one territory that no country, no military, no set of intelligence agencies can occupy, no matter how much they invest in doing so.  An inability to predict the lay of tomorrow’s land may, in a way, be par for the course.  If so, however, remind me: Why exactly are we supporting 17 versions of intelligence gathering to the tune of at least $68 billion a year?”

Good question.  The more they fail, the more money and power they get.

In some ways, the U.S. global security state is like a Rube Goldberg machine, absurdly and immensely complicated, with many points of potential failure.  Then again, Rube Goldberg might not be the best metaphor, since his devices actually worked.  They accomplished a simple task in an absurdly and often amusingly complex way.  But there’s nothing amusing about the U.S. global security machine, which can’t win its wars even as it succeeds in perpetuating its own growth.

What the global security state resembles most is a golem, a soulless monster of immense power.  The government summoned it in the name of smiting enemies, but it has now grown so powerful that no one fully controls it.  It continues to intervene powerfully and destructively, with wildly unpredictable results.  Yet its creators are so simultaneously frightened of it and in awe of it that they continue to feed the beast while sending it forth to do battle.

The shadow government as golem: a shambling monster seeking vengeance but lacking a soul and without a hint of compassion.  It’s a terrifying idea.  After reading Engelhardt’s new book, you should indeed be terrified of what is lurking in the immense and menacing shadow cast by the global security state.