A curious feature of America’s wars is their lack of thematic coherence. Lacking a clear beginning (other than the 9/11 attacks), they also lack a clear end point. It’s all middle – repetition without meaning, action without progress, like a bad novel that introduces lots of characters but that never goes anywhere. Look at the rolling cast of characters in charge of America’s wars in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Other than generals who disgraced themselves in ways unrelated to combat performance (David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal), their names are unmemorable.
The American people have largely cast aside the “bad novel” of America’s wars. They find it boring, repetitive, inconsequential (at least to them). But that doesn’t mean people aren’t paying for it, each and every day.
In the absence of Congressional declarations, America’s wars today are not being waged in the name of the people. Cowed by the Executive branch and coerced by money, a spineless Congress willingly sidelines itself. In turn the Executive branch keeps the American people isolated from war even as it misleads them with lies and half-truths.
And thus the American people refuse to take ownership of these wars. And who can blame them, since these wars aren’t being fought in their name or for their interests. America’s wars are the preserve of the commander-in-chief and his various “experts” in and out of uniform, men like retired general and current Secretary of Defense James Mattis, John Bolton, the new National Security Advisor, and Mike Pompeo, the CIA chief who now leads the State Department. Unconcerned with the will and concerns of the people, these men favor aggressive stances and support U.S. military interventions around the globe.
What’s the solution to America’s “bad novel”? Ignoring or disowning it only empowers its authors and their predilection for waging war, however falsely, in our name. Instead, we have to overcome America’s ethos of violence and its climate of fear. Campaign finance reform is vital if we want to suppress the influence of war profiteers. Cutting the Pentagon budget by at least 20% is essential as well. Finally, we need to educate ourselves about war, and to insist that wars are fought only when authorized by Congress, and only as a last resort instead of the first.
If we don’t take these steps, America will be forever stuck reading a bad novel with a one-word title: War.
Back in June 2013, I wrote the following article on “Bread and Circuses in Rome and America.” It flashed through my mind this morning because of Robert Lipsyte’s post today at TomDispatch.com on Trump, the NFL, violence, race, brain injuries, and patriotism. I urge you to read it as well as Tom Engelhardt’s introduction, which cites the bread and circuses of the Roman Empire.
A key insight in my article below came from a correspondent, Amy Scanlon, who keenly observed that the Roman Imperium saw compassion, not violence, as a vice. The gladiatorial games were meant to keep Romans at a fever pitch for war (with the bloody, murderous games being the next best thing to war). It’s not much of a stretch to think of NFL violence as keeping Americans at a similar feverish pitch; and, not just the NFL, but the commercials during the games, which are often saturated with guns and violence and war.
The expression “bread and circuses“ captures a certain cynical political view that the masses can be kept happy with fast food (think Cartman’s “Cheesy Poofs” on South Park) and faster entertainment (NASCAR races, NFL games, and the like). In the Roman Empire, it was bread and chariot races and gladiatorial games that filled the belly and distracted the mind, allowing emperors to rule as they saw fit.
There’s truth to the view that people can be kept tractable as long as you fill their bellies and give them violent spectacles to fill their free time. Heck, Americans are meekly compliant even when their government invades their privacy and spies upon them. But there’s a deeper, more ominous, sense to bread and circuses that is rarely mentioned in American discourse. It was pointed out to me by Amy Scanlon.
In her words:
Basically ancient Rome was a society that completely revolved around war, and where compassion was considered a vice rather than a virtue… [The] Romans saw gladiatorial contests not as a form of decadence but as a cure for decadence. And decadence to the Romans had little to do with sexual behavior or lack of a decent work ethic, but a lack of military-style honor and soldierly virtues. To a Roman compassion was a detestable vice, which was considered both decadent and feminine. Watching people and animals slaughtered brutally [in the arena] was seen as a way to keep the civilian population from this ‘weakness’ because they didn’t see combat…
Scanlon then provocatively asks, “Could our society be sliding towards those Roman attitudes in a bizarre sort of way?”
I often think that America suffers from an empathy gap. We are simply not encouraged to put ourselves in the place of others. For example, how many Americans fancy the idea of a foreign power operating drones in our sovereign skies, launching missiles at gun-toting Americans suspected by this foreign power of being “militants“? Yet we operate drones in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, killing suspected militants with total impunity. Even when innocent women and children are killed, our emperors and our media don’t encourage us to have compassion for them. We are basically told to think of them as collateral damage, regrettable, perhaps, but otherwise inconsequential.
Certainly, our military in the last two decades has put new stress on American troops as “warriors” and “warfighters,” a view more consistent with the hardened professionals of the Roman Empire than with the citizen-soldiers of the Roman Republic. Without thinking too much about it, we’ve come to see our troops as an imperial guard, ever active on the ramparts of our empire. War, meanwhile, is seen not as a last course of defense but as a first course to preempt the evil designs of the many hidden enemies of America. Our troops, therefore, are our protectors, our heroes, the defenders of America, even though that “defense” treats the entire globe as a potential killing field.
Scanlon’s view of the Roman use of bread and circuses — as a way to kill compassion to ensure the brutalization of Roman civilians and thus their compliance (or at least their complacency) vis-à-vis Imperial expansion and domestic policing — is powerful and sobering.
At the same time, the Obama administration is increasingly couching violent military intervention in humanitarian terms. Deploying troops and tipping wars in our favor is done in the name of defeating petty tyrants (e.g. Khadafy in Libya; Is Assad of Syria next?). Think of it as our latest expression of “compassion.”
All things considered, perhaps our new national motto should be: When in America, do as the Roman Empire would do. Eat to your fill of food and violence, cheer on the warfighters, and dismiss expressions of doubt or dismay about military interventions and drone killings as “feminine” and “weak.”
At least we can applaud ourselves that we no longer torture and kill animals in the arena like the Romans did. See how civilized we’ve become?
A few thoughts on violence and military idolatry in America
If you believe the polls, America is a nation of believers. A nation of faith. But is our faith truly in a pacific god of love? Or do we instead worship a god of war? Current and past events suggest that too often Americans place their faith in war and the military. We continue to believe despite the evidence our belief is both wrongheaded and destructive.
We have a cult-like affection for war and the military. It drives what we see — what we perceive. Believing is seeing. The military confesses to believe in “progress” in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, so we invent metrics that show how we’re winning (which is exactly what we did fifty years ago in Vietnam).
We are not a rational society. We are a faith-based society. And our temples and crosses are military bases and weaponry, which we export globally. The U.S. has 800 overseas bases, and America dominates the international trade in arms. Meanwhile, our missionaries are our Special Ops troops, which we send to 130 countries, spreading the American gospel. The gospel of war and the gun.
The icons of American militarism are our weapons. Our warplanes, our drones, big bombs (the MOAB), the list goes on. They have become the iconic symbols of an idolatry of destruction.
A xenophobic form of patriotism exacerbates a religion of violence. Exclusive rather than inclusive, it sets the boundaries of “us” versus “them.” Critics and dissenters are cast out and exiled.
Meanwhile, in far-off foreign lands, we reject the reality of ruins and rubble. We couch it instead in terms of salvation: “we had to destroy the village to save it.” It’s another aspect of our evangelical approach to war. It’s like being born again. You must tear yourself down before you’re born again in the spirit of Christ. We seem to believe cities must be ruined before we can declare victory over the enemy.
Consider 9/11/2001. An inward-looking people may have kept the ruins of 9/11 as a monument to the victims. But not us. That’s expensive real estate, and on those ruins we were born again, building Freedom Tower, exactly 1776 feet in height. Thus our fall was reinterpreted as rebirth, our defeat as victory, tragedy as triumph. Even 9/11 itself is now celebrated as a day of patriotism.
Yes, we can reconstruct our own rubble, as we did after 9/11. But will foreign rubble ever be reconstructed? Cities like Mosul? Well, who cares? They are not of the body. They are not us. They are outcasts. Let them survive in what’s left of their blasted buildings and homes.
Our TV shows reinforce our belief in violence and militarism. New ones include “The Brave” on NBC, which begins by focusing on a pretty White female doctor kidnapped by Muslim terrorists and “brave” efforts to rescue her; “Valor” on the CW channel, featuring lots of helicopters and flags and automatic weapons; and the rather obvious “SEAL Team” on CBS, with elite Navy SEALs standing in for the superheroes of the past. If you get tired of watching military heroics on TV, there’s always military-themed “shooter” video games. Indeed, the military experience is everywhere, even in Madden football, where in “story mode” you can play against quarterback Dan Marino on an Army base in Iraq. (The field is surrounded by a fortified fence, rocky hills, and a helicopter pad, among other exotic military features.)
America is being consumed by a religion of violence and mayhem. We’re trapped in a dark maelstrom of death and destruction. Yet how can we repudiate our god of war when we are so busy feeding him? When we talk of “thoughts and prayers” after each tragedy, do we truly know which god we’re calling upon?
When it Comes to the NFL, Trump Should be Flagged and Ejected for Unnecessary Roughness
President Trump has once again attacked the NFL for exactly the wrong reasons. He wants NFL owners to fire players who take a knee during the national anthem. Their sin, according to Trump, is disrespecting the American flag. Trump also complains that the game has gotten soft, that big and exciting hits of the past are now penalized, so much so that today’s game is boring precisely because it’s insufficiently violent.
Nonsense. First, few players dare to use the game as a platform for protest, perhaps because they fear being blackballed like Colin Kaepernick, the talented quarterback who can’t find a job because he took a knee in protest against racism. Second, the NFL is awash in patriotic displays, everything from gigantic flags and military flyovers to special events to honor the troops. Just one example: During the opening game of this season, uniformed troops waving flags ran out on the field ahead of the New England Patriots as the team emerged from the tunnel. What are troops in camouflaged combat uniforms doing on the field of play?
With respect to violence, the NFL has only lately begun haltingly to address crippling injuries, especially brain abnormalities due to recurrent hits and concussions. Watching an NFL game is often an exercise in medical triage, as players are carted off the field with various injuries. A new feature this season is a tent on the sidelines that injured players may now enter to be treated away from the incessantly probing eyes of sideline cameras. Careers in the NFL are often cut short by crippling injuries, yet Trump claims the game is going down the tubes because it’s not violent enough.
Trump represents a minority view (I believe), but nevertheless a vocal one. Given his narcissism and the grudges he carries, one wonders if he attacks the NFL because of his failed bid to acquire the Buffalo Bills team back in 2014.
Football is the most popular sport in America. It speaks volumes about our culture. That Trump sees it as insufficiently violent and insufficiently patriotic — and that he’s cheered for making these claims — points to the gladiatorial nature of America’s imperial moment. Bread and circuses at home, wars abroad. And U.S. politicians who fiddle while the world burns.
Update: Trump’s comments have drawn a response during the first NFL game today (played in England). Here’s the headline at the Washington Post: NFL Week 3: Ravens, Jaguars respond to President Trump’s comments by linking arms, kneeling during anthem. It will be interesting to see how other teams respond today and during Monday night football.
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.
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.
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?