America: Submerged in a Violent Cesspool

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What kind of fire is rising in America today?

In a recent article for TomDispatch.com, I argued that Americans have embraced weapons and warriors, guns and gun exports, prisons and guards, all supported by a steady stream of fear.  The end result has been a cesspool of violence largely of our own making.  In such an environment, a man like Donald Trump, more opportunist than populist, more power-driven than public servant, more cynic than idealist, has ample opportunities to thrive. 

The complete article is here; in this excerpt, I focus on Trump’s rise as well as the rise of a uniquely American anti-hero, the vigilante Dark Knight, AKA Batman. 

Since the end of the Cold War, America has been exporting a mirror image of its domestic self — not the classic combo of democracy and freedom, but guns, prisons and security forces. Globally, the label “Made in the USA” has increasingly come to be associated with violence and war, as well, of course, as Hollywood action flicks sporting things that go boom in the night.

Such exports are now so commonplace that, in some cases, Washington has even ended up arming our enemies. Just consider the hundreds of thousands of small arms sent to Iraq and Afghanistan that were simply lost track of. Many of them evidently ended up on sale at local black markets.

Or consider the weapons and equipment Washington provided to Iraq’s security forces, only to see them abandoned on the battlefield and captured by the Islamic State.

Look as well at prisons like Gitmo — which Donald Trump has no intention of ever closing — and Abu Ghraib, and an unknown number of black sites that were in some of these years used for rendition, detention and torture, and gave the United States a reputation in the world that may prove indelible.

And, of course, American-made weaponry like tear gas canisters and bombs, including cluster munitions, that regularly finds its way onto foreign soil in places like Yemen and, in the case of the tear gas, Egypt, proudly sporting those “Made in the USA” labels.

Strangely, most Americans remain either willfully ignorant of, or indifferent to, what their country is becoming. That American-made weaponry is everywhere, that America’s warriors are all over the globe, that America’s domestic prisons are bursting with more than two million captives, is even taken by some as a point of pride…

Increasingly, Americans are submerged in a violent cesspool of our own making. As a man who knows how to stoke fear as well as exploit it, President Trump fits into such an atmosphere amazingly well. With a sense of how to belittle, insult and threaten, he has a knack for inflaming and exploiting America’s collective dark side.

But think of Trump as more symptom than cause, the outward manifestation of an inner spiritual disease that continues to eat away at the country’s societal matrix. A sign of this unease is America’s most popular superhero of the moment. He even has a new Lego movie coming. Yes, it’s Batman, the vigilante alter-ego of Bruce Wayne, ultra-rich philanthropist and CEO of Wayne Enterprises.

The popularity of Batman, Gotham City’s Dark Knight, reflects America’s fractured ethos of anger, pain, and violence. Americans find common cause in his tortured psyche, his need for vengeance, his extreme version of justice. But at least billionaire Bruce Wayne had some regard for the vulnerable and unfortunate.

America now has a darker knight than that in Donald J. Trump, a man who mocks and assaults those he sees as beneath him, a man whose utterances sound more like a Batman villain, a man who doesn’t believe in heroes — only in himself.

The Dark Knight may yet become, under Trump, a genuine dark night for America’s collective soul. Like Batman, Trump is a product of Gotham City. And if this country is increasingly Gotham City writ large, shining the Batman symbol worldwide and having billionaire Trump and his sidekick — Gen. Michael Flynn? — answer the beacon is a prospect that should be more than a little unnerving.

It wasn’t that long ago that another superhero represented America — Superman. Chivalrous, noble, compassionate, he fought without irony for truth, justice and the American way. And his alter ego, of course, was mild-mannered Clark Kent, a reporter no less.

In Trump’s America, imagine the likelihood of reporters being celebrated as freedom fighters as they struggle to hold the powerful accountable. Perhaps it’s more telling than its makers knew that in last year’s dreary slugfest of a movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the bat rode high while the son of Krypton ended up six feet under.

Let me, in this context, return to that moment when the Cold War ended.

Twenty-five years ago, I served as escort officer to Gen. Robinson Risner as he spoke to cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Risner’s long and resolute endurance as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War — captured in his memoir, The Passing of the Night — had made him something of a real-life superhero to us then.

He talked to the cadets about public service, love of country and faith in God — noble virtues, based on humility, grace and inner strength. As I look back to that night, as I remember how Gen. Risner spoke with quiet dignity of the virtues of service and sacrifice, I ask myself how America today could have become such a land of weapons and warriors, guns and gun exports, prisons and fear, led by a boastful and boorish bullyboy.

How did America’s ideals become so twisted? And how do we regain our nobility of purpose? One thing is certain — the current path, the one of ever greater military spending, of border walls and extreme vetting, of vilification of the Other, justified in terms of toughness and “winning,” will lead only to further violence and darker (k)nights.

Be sure to check out TomDispatch.com, a regular antidote to the mainstream media.

War Pabulum: The Perils of War as a Master Narrative

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Photo by Paul Nadar (1891), from a French postcard

W.J. Astore

I was reading the novelist Ursula K. Le Guin and came across the following commentary by her:

“A hero whose heroism consists of killing people is uninteresting to me, and I detest the hormonal war orgies of our visual media … War as a moral metaphor is limited, limiting, and dangerous.  By reducing the choices of action to ‘a war against’ whatever-it-is, you divide the world into Me or Us (good) and Them or It (bad) and reduce the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off.  This is puerile, misleading, and degrading.  In stories, it evades any solution but violence and offers the reader mere infantile reassurance.  All too often the heroes of such fantasies behave exactly as the villains do, acting with mindless violence, but the hero is on the ‘right’ side and therefore will win.”

This passage is copyrighted 2012, and surely Le Guin is commenting in part on the American political and war scene, even if these comments came as an afterword to her novel “A Wizard of Earthsea.”

The stories we tell ourselves – our driving narratives and metaphors – are very powerful.  I learned this almost three decades ago from one of my professors at Johns Hopkins.  We were talking about the scientific revolution, the label applied after the fact by historians to the era of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton.  Did that era truly deserve the label of a “revolution” in thought?  On one level, yes.  A heliocentric vision replaced a geocentric one.  Newtonian physics replaced Aristotelian metaphysics.  But on another level, the label was misleading.  If you view this era only through a “revolutionary” lens, everything gets magnified and refracted through it.  You’re always looking for evidence of the “revolution” that you know is there.  The revolutionary narrative/metaphor, in other words, restricts and distorts your vision.  It also tends to answer questions before they’re even asked.  Certain historical figures get labeled as “revolutionaries,” others as “reactionaries,” some as winners, others as losers, almost without having to think about it.

That’s disturbing enough for a historian dealing with the “dead” past.  Think about how that distortion, that resort to easy categorization, applies to the living, to the present, in “wartime.”  Viewing everything through a war lens both restricts and distorts our vision.  We quickly force people to take sides, or we assign them a side regardless of their complexity (“You’re either for us or against us,” as George W. Bush noted in the aftermath of 9/11).  Just as quickly, the “heroes” adopt the violent methods of the bad guys (witness the bombing, the invasions, the use of torture, performed by the U.S. in the stated cause of “liberation”).  No ethical complexity is tolerated since “our” troops are on the right side (so we think).  Even when they embrace violence and lose control, deadly mistakes and even war crimes are readily excused as aberrations that should be forgotten, rare exceptions that do nothing to besmirch America’s exceptional and heroic nature.

The power of narratives is remarkable.  The United States continues to be driven by one that’s dominated by power, violence, and war.  Is it any wonder, then, that the two major party candidates for the presidency, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, fit so easily and readily into this narrative?  Hillary plans to continue to wage war even more aggressively than Obama has, and Trump is all about violent solutions and an “Us” versus “Them” mentality.  (Build a wall!  Biggest, baddest military!  Make America great again!  Punch the protesters!    Extreme vetting!  Throw the illegals out!)

Until we change our national narrative from one of constant war and violence to something more pacific and modulated, our political scene will continue to be, to borrow Le Guin’s words, puerile and misleading and degrading, with candidates serving up heroic violence as pabulum, as infantile reassurance.

NFL, NASCAR, and U.S. Foreign Policy: Quick Hits

And another American chariot crashes and burns
And another American chariot crashes and burns

W.J. Astore

During the Roman Empire, chariot races and gladiatorial games served to entertain the people. The U.S. empire’s equivalent, of course, is NASCAR and the NFL. Serve up some bread to go with the circuses and you have a surefire way to keep most people satisfied and distracted.

That’s true enough, but let’s dig deeper.  NASCAR features expensive, high-tech machinery, heavily promoted by corporate sponsors, with an emphasis on high speed and adrenaline rushes and risk-taking — and accidents, often spectacular in nature. Indeed, turn to the news and you see special features devoted to spectacular crashes, almost as if the final result of the race didn’t matter.

Turn to the NFL and you see it’s about kinetic action — big plays and bigger hits, with players often being carted off the field with concussions or season-ending injuries.  The game itself is constant stop and go, go and stop, with plenty of corporate sponsors again.

High-octane violence sponsored by corporations facilitated by high-tech machinery; big hits and repetitive stop-and-go action also sponsored by corporations; spectacular (and predictable) smash-ups and serious injuries, all enfolded in patriotic imagery, with the military along for the ride to do recruitment.  Yes, our leading spectator sports do say a lot about us, and a lot about our foreign policy as well.

It used to be said that the Romans fought as they trained: that their drills were bloodless battles, and their battles bloody drills. We conduct foreign policy as we play sports: lots of violence, driven by high technology, sponsored by corporations, with plenty of repetition and more than a few crash and burn events.

A good friend wrote to me to contrast rugby with American football (the NFL).  In rugby, he explained, the goal is ball control.  Big hits are less important than gaining the ball. The play is hard but is more continuous.  Playing as a team is essential.  In rugby, there’s far less physical specialization of the players (e.g. no lumbering 350-pound linemen as in the NFL); every player has to run long and hard.  There’s far more flow to the game and much less interference by coaches.

We could use more flow and patience to our foreign policy, more “ball control” rather than big hits and kinetic action and quick strikes.  Yet, much like NASCAR and the NFL, we prefer high-octane “shock and awe,” the throwing of “long bombs,” with a surfeit of spectacular crashes and collateral damage.  All brought to you by your corporate sponsors, naturally, where the bottom line –profit– truly is the bottom line.

Perhaps we should look for new sports.  Tennis, anyone?

Martin Luther King, Jr. on America’s Spiritual Death

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W.J. Astore

On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a powerful speech (“Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence”) that condemned America’s war in Vietnam. Exactly one year later, he was assassinated in Memphis.

What follows are excerpts from MLK’s speech. I urge you to read it in its entirety, but I’d like to highlight this line:

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

MLK called for a revolution of values in America. In his address, he noted that:

There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war.

MLK didn’t just have a dream of racial equality. He had a dream for justice around the world, a dream of a world committed to peace, a world in which America would lead a reordering of values in the direction of universal brotherhood.

Both of MLK’s dreams remain elusive. Racial inequalities and biases remain, though America is better now than it was in the 1960s in regards to racial equity. And what of a commitment to peace? Sadly, America remains dedicated to war, spending nearly a trillion dollars yearly on defense, Homeland Security, nuclear weapons, and “overseas contingency operations,” i.e. wars.

America has failed to dream the dreams of Martin Luther King, Jr., and we are the worse for it. W.J. Astore

Excerpts from MLK’s Speech on Vietnam, April 4, 1967

At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called “enemy,” I am as deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak of the — for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours…

If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, clumsy, and deadly game we have decided to play. The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways. In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war…

It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin…we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.

Spreading Violence is Much Easier than Bridging Cultural Gaps

Teach a man to shoot ...
Is a warm gun the universal translator?

W.J. Astore

In Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the U.S. military is fairly good at projecting power. Indeed, the military prides itself on “global reach, global power,” achieved through a worldwide system of bases and funded by enormous amounts of “defense” spending.  What the U.S. military is not so good at is understanding foreign cultures.  Often, it seems the number one goal of military interventions is selling weapons to armies in the countries in which the U.S. military intervenes, so-called foreign military sales or FMS for short.  This is true of Iraq, Afghanistan, and now many countries in Africa, as Nick Turse has shown in several groundbreaking articles at TomDispatch.com.

The U.S. military is “can-do” when it comes to projecting power, and “can-do” when it comes to building host nation armies (of course, the reliability of those armies, such as the Afghan National Army, is often highly suspect, even after a decade of training and billions of dollars in weapons and related equipment).  But what the military always gives short-shrift to is cultural understanding.  Cultural gaps are either ignored or dismissed as irrelevant (“Grab them by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow”) or bridged in ways that ultimately reveal how little we know about the foreign peoples on the receiving end of American largesse.

I learned this firsthand about ten years ago when I was at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California.  Of all things my lesson came as the result of a Peter, Paul, and Mary song.  While I was the Associate Provost at DLI, the school received an urgent request from a U.S. official working with Iraqi schools. The official wanted help translating the song, “Don’t Laugh At Me,” from English to Arabic. The song, which appears on the Peter, Paul, and Mary CD Songs of Conscience & Concern, is used in U.S. elementary schools to promote tolerance. Its first lines are “I’m a little boy with glasses/The one they call a geek/A little girl who never smiles/’Cause I have braces on my teeth.” The refrain urges: “Don’t laugh at me/Don’t call me names/Don’t get your pleasure from my pain/In God’s eyes we’re all the same.” Rather safe and innocuous lyrics, one might think.

Yet, translating this feel-good song of tolerance into Arabic was neither safe nor easy. After gathering our best Arabic translators, we quickly learned that even the simplest lyrics posed problems of translation. What about that geeky American boy with glasses, the one being taunted for being bookish? Our translators, many of whom hailed from Middle Eastern countries, explained that in Iraq he would most likely be admired and praised for his smarts. How about that American girl with braces, so reluctant to smile? Well, most Iraqi kids would be fortunate indeed to have access to orthodontia. In an Iraqi cultural context, laughing at geeks with glasses or girls with braces just didn’t translate.

And if such seemingly simple lines as these were untranslatable due to the culture gap, what about lines like “I’m gay, I’m lesbian, I’m American Indian,” or even more treacherously, “A single teenage mother/Tryin’ to overcome my past”?  Best not go there, we concluded.

I learned a lot from this experience. If we can’t translate seemingly harmless song lyrics to promote diversity and tolerance, how do we expect to “translate” democracy?

It seems the military’s answer to this is to focus on what needs no translation: violence.  So the goal is to build host armies and police forces and to sell them weapons while building fortress-like American embassies (in Iraq and Afghanistan) or American bases (which are mini-fortresses) to watch over the benighted buggers of the world.

Some might say that warm guns serve as universal translators.  But a harsher conclusion is this: That we are indeed translating our culture overseas: a culture built less on tolerance than it is on violence.

Hair-Trigger America

Easy on that trigger, America
Easy on that trigger, America

W.J. Astore

I wrote this for Truthout but debated whether to publish it.  I just didn’t want to deal with all the gun enthusiasts who equate liberty with owning lots of guns and ammo.  This article is not specifically about guns.  It’s about our propensity for seeking quick and violent solutions to societal and political problems.  It’s about our willingness to spend billions on weaponry and also our willingness to sell billions in weaponry. It’s about a mentality that’s captured in the image of fingers tensed on so many hair-triggers, whether metaphorically or literally.

A nation that used to espouse isolationism has morphed into one poised for hair-trigger pre-emptive war, privately armed to the teeth and the leading purveyor in the global arms trade.

We live in hair-trigger America, an America that’s quick to kill, slow to think. A nation and a people that used to espouse isolationism (even if the practice was imperfect) has morphed into one poised for constant warfare. America’s leaders call for hair-trigger pre-emptive war even if the odds of an attack on the United States are 100 to 1against. America’s military and the CIA use Predator and Reaper drones to kill “enemies,” even when they’re not completely sure they are the enemy.

This is not the first time we’ve been a hair-trigger people. When I worked in the Air Force at the Cheyenne Mountain complex in Colorado in the 1980s, fear of nuclear annihilation was palpable. US nuclear forces were on hair-trigger alert. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, annihilatory fears abated.  We were, in the words of President George H.W. Bush, offered a chance to cash-in our peace dividends. We were, in the words of Jeanne Kirkpatrick (no dove she), offered a chance to become a normal country in normal times.

What intervened, of course, was the shock and awe of 9/11, together with what President Dwight D. Eisenhower termed the growing power of the military-industrial complex. Motive and opportunity drove a military (and militantly hysterical) response to 9/11 (to include torture) that was in retrospect entirely out of proportion to the damage done as well as to the threat posed by the attackers. At the same time, US troops were lauded as so many heroes, their leaders as so many Caesars. Forgotten was our founders’ hard-earned skepticism of militarism and war, their prediction that constant warfare would trigger the end of liberty.

More than a decade after 9/11, America remains poised to strike, fingers at ready on so many hair triggers. The military and especially its Special Forces remain on alert, trigger-pullers who are forward-deployed in 100-plus countries for rapid responses (and deadly interventions). Drones patrol foreign skies, always circling, always seeking targets. Full-spectrum dominance is the military’s stated goal. The land, the seas, the skies, space, even cyberspace – all must be treated as potential war zones.  All must therefore be dominated.

A hair-trigger mentality is both glitch and feature of a distinctly militarized and authoritarian American moment.  And those hair-triggers often morph into trigger-pullers, literally so, domestically as well as internationally.  Gun deaths in America continue to exceed 30,000 a year; by 2015, they may exceed traffic deaths. If not trigger-pullers, so many millions of Americans are trigger owners. As of 2009, there were 310 million non-military firearms in the United States, enough guns to arm every man, woman and child. One nation, under guns (but certainly not under-gunned).

Of course, Americans are not only trigger-pullers, but trigger-pushers. And by that I mean that the United States dominates the world’s (legal) arms trade. In 2010, we accounted for 53 percent of this trade; in 2011, a banner year, we accounted for a whopping 75 percent of this trade, dropping back to only 58 percent in 2012. Add to this legal arms trade the propensity for American guns to cross borders illegally to end up at crime scenes in Mexico and elsewhere, even when our own government isn’t involved in facilitating the trade.

To be seen as ready, willing, and able to pull various triggers is a distinctly American trope. Toughness, especially in dealing with foreign adversaries, is measured by a willingness to kill, a form of martial virtue. No American president can be seen without a gun in his hand, a trigger being pulled, even Barack Obama, whose staff took pains to release a photo of him shooting skeet.

When will we learn, as Eisenhower said, that only Americans can hurt America? And that trigger-pulling and trigger-pushing Americans are an especially grave threat, not only to America, but also to the world?

Recalling the words of Kirkpatrick, it’s long past time for America to become a normal country in normal times.  A time when fingers need not be tensed on so many hair triggers. Or any triggers at all.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

The Sandy Hook Martyrs — One Year Later

Memorial to the innocents killed at Sandy Hook elementary.  Photo by author.
Memorial to the innocents killed at Sandy Hook elementary. Photo by author.

W.J. Astore

Back in July, my wife and I visited the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Mass.  At the shrine, there’s a simple, moving, memorial to the Sandy Hook children (see photo above).

Rarely has the Biblical phrase, “Jesus wept,” been sadder or more appropriate.  Christ said to suffer the children to come unto me, for they are the kingdom of heaven.  How have we as a society lost this message?

Children are our innocents; they are also our future.  Yet far too many of them are mistreated–even murdered.

The Sandy Hook children are martyrs to an American society that is saturated in violence.  A society that claims to put its trust in God even as it resolutely ignores His teachings.

We have to do a better job of protecting our children from our all-too-violent tendencies.  As a friend put it, we need to do better than to hope our children are safe.  We need to know that they are safe.

We need to know because the agony of more lost innocents is too much to bear.

W.J. Astore