The Police, the Military, and the Ethos of Violence

wendy's
Another deadly police shooting of a black man led to this Wendy’s being torched in Atlanta.  The Atlanta police chief has resigned.

W.J. Astore

Here are ten thoughts that have occurred to me lately.

  1. Police are a nation within a nation (“the thin blue line”), with their own flag, their own uniforms, their own code of conduct, maybe even their own laws.  How do we get them to rejoin America?  How do we get them to recall they’re citizens and public servants first?
  2. Our systems of authority, including the presidency under Trump, serve themselves first.  They all want the same thing: MORE.  More money, more authority, more power.  And they all tend toward more violence.  And because racism is systemic, much of that violence is aimed at blacks, but it’s aimed at anyone considered to be fringe or in the way.
  3. We need an entirely new mindset or ethos in this country, but the police, the military, the Congress, the president are all jealous of their power, and will resist as best they can.  Their main tactic will be to slow roll changes while scaring us with talk of all the “enemies” we face.  Thus we already see Trump hyping China as a threat while claiming that Biden wants to “defund” the military — a shameless and ridiculous lie.  Meanwhile, Biden is against defunding the police and proudly took ownership of the crime bill that created much of the problem.
  4. We used to have a Department of War to which citizen-soldiers were drafted.  Now we have a Department of Defense to which warriors and warfighters volunteer.  There’s a lot of meaning in this terminology.
  5. Even as the police and military are government agencies, publicly funded, they are instruments of capitalism.  They protect and expand property for the elites.  They are enforcers of prevailing paradigms.
  6. It amazes me how cheaply one can buy a Washington politician.  You can buy access for a few thousand, or tens of thousands, and get them to dance to your tune for a few million.  This is capitalism, where everything and everyone can be bought or sold, often on the cheap.
  7. Doesn’t it seem like Washington foreign policy is dropping bombs, selling bombs, killing people, or making a killing, i.e. profiteering?
  8. America always need a “peer enemy,” and, when necessary, we’ll invent one.  America is #1 at making enemies — maybe that should be our national motto.
  9. Too often nowadays, “diversity” is all about surface or “optics.”  Thus the call for Joe Biden to select a black woman as his running mate, irrespective of her views.  Thus we hear the names of Susan Rice and Kamala Harris being mentioned, both mainstream Democrats, both servants of the national security state, pliable and predictable.  But you never hear the name of Nina Turner, who was national co-chair of Bernie Sanders’s campaign.  She’s an outspoken black progressive, and that’s not the “diversity” Joe Biden and the DNC seek.  Or what about Tulsi Gabbard, who has endorsed Biden?  Woman of color, extensive military experience, lots of appeal to independent-minded voters.  But she’s an opponent of forever wars and the military-industrial-congressional complex, and that’s “diversity” that cannot be tolerated.  So we’re most likely to see a “diverse” ticket of Biden-Harris or Biden-Rice, just like Hillary-Tim Kaine, i.e. no progressive views can or will be heard.
  10. One secret of Trump’s appeal: He makes even dumb people feel smart.  After all, even his most stalwart supporters didn’t drink or inject bleach after Trump suggested it could be used for internal “cleansing” to avoid Covid-19.

Bonus comment: Can you believe that those who worked to suppress protests in Washington, D.C. compared their “stand” to the Alamo and the Super Bowl?  Talk about Trump-level hyperbole!  Here’s the relevant passage from the New York Times:

On Tuesday, during a conference call with commanders on the situation in Washington, General Ryan, the task force commander, likened the defense of Lafayette Square to the “Alamo” and his troops’ response to the huge protests on Saturday to the “Super Bowl.”

Mission accomplished!  What’s on your mind, readers?

America’s Forever Wars Have Come Home

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt at TomDispatch.com

Here’s a little portrait of the United States in June 2020, a passage from a New York Times report on the National Guard’s treatment of a recent protest march of people chanting “We can’t breathe!” in Washington, D.C.:

“A Black Hawk helicopter, followed by a smaller medical evacuation helicopter, dropped to rooftop level with its searchlights aimed at the crowd. Tree limbs snapped, nearly hitting several people. Signs were torn from the sides of buildings. Some protesters looked up, while others ran into doorways. The downward force of air from the rotors was deafening. The helicopters were performing a ‘show of force’ — a standard tactic used by military aircraft in combat zones to scatter insurgents.”

Talk about America’s wars coming home! George Floyd’s recent killing is both a long way, and yet not far at all, from the police shooting of the unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Many Americans felt shocked then on seeing that city’s police force respond to the ensuing protests togged out in Pentagon-supplied gear of every sort, including sniper rifles and Humvees, often directly off the battlefields of this country’s ongoing wars. As Missouri Congressman Emanuel Cleaver put it then, referring to an Iraqi city largely destroyed by the U.S. military in 2004, “Ferguson resembles Fallujah.”

The question is: What does the U.S. resemble six years later? You know, I’m talking about the place that Secretary of Defense Mark Esper recently referred to as a “battle space” (as in “dominate the battle space”) in a contentious discussion he and President Trump had with the nation’s governors. I’m talking about the country where that same president has been threatening to call out the troops as police forces. (When retired military brass screamed bloody murder, Esper began backing down.) I’m talking about the land into which Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton has the urge to send the 101st Airborne Division, or Screaming Eagles, whose assault troops have previously seen action in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. (“If local politicians will not do their most basic job to protect our citizens, let’s see how these anarchists respond when the 101st Airborne is on the other side of the street.”)

Could you ever doubt that America’s wars would sooner or later come home in a big way? I suspect retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and historian William Astore didn’t. After all, he’s been writing for years at TomDispatch about how our former citizens’ military has, in those very wars, become the equivalent of a foreign legion. Fully militarizing the police and bringing the legionnaires home, a subject he explores today, seems like just the next obvious step in this country’s precipitous decline. Tom

“Light ‘Em Up”
Warrior-Cops Are the Law — and Above the Law — as Violence Grips America
By William J. Astore

From their front porches, regular citizens watched a cordon of cops sweep down their peaceful street in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Rankled at being filmed, the cops exceeded their authority and demanded that people go inside their houses. When some of them didn’t obey quickly enough, the order — one heard so many times in the streets of Iraqi cities and in the villages of Afghanistan — was issued: “Light ’em up.” And so “disobedient” Americans found themselves on the receiving end of non-lethal rounds for the “crime” of watching the police from those porches.

It’s taken years from Ferguson to this moment, but America’s cops have now officially joined the military as “professional” warriors. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder on May 25th, those warrior-cops have taken to the streets across the country wearing combat gear and with attitudes to match. They see protesters, as well as the reporters covering them, as the enemy and themselves as the “thin blue line” of law and order.

The police take to bashing heads and thrashing bodies, using weaponry so generously funded by the American taxpayer: rubber bullets, pepper spray (as Congresswoman Joyce Beatty of Ohio experienced at a protest), tear gas (as Episcopal clergy experienced at a demonstration in Washington, D.C.), paint canisters, and similar “non-lethal” munitions, together with flash-bang grenades, standard-issue batons, and Tasers, even as they drive military-surplus equipment like Humvees and MRAPs. (Note that such munitions blinded an eye of one photo-journalist.) A Predator drone even hovered over at least one protest.

Who needs a military parade, President Trump? Americans are witnessing militarized “parades” across the U.S.A. Their theme: violent force. The result: plenty of wounded and otherwise damaged Americans left in their wake. The detritus of America’s foreign wars has finally well and truly found its place on Main Street, U.S.A.

Cops are to blame for much of this mayhem. Video clips show them wildly out of control, inciting violence and inflicting it, instead of defusing and preventing it. Far too often, “to serve and protect” has become “to shoot and smack down.” It suggests the character of Eric Cartman from the cartoon South Park, a boy inflamed by a badge and a chance to inflict physical violence without accountability. “Respect my authoritah!” cries Cartman as he beats an innocent man for no reason.

So, let’s point cameras — and fingers — at these bully-boy cops, let’s document their crimes, but let’s also state a fact with courage: it’s not just their fault.

Who else is to blame? Well, so many of us. How stupid have we been to celebrate cops as heroes, just as we’ve been foolishly doing for so long with the U.S. military? Few people are heroes and fewer still deserve “hero” status while wearing uniforms and shooting bullets, rubber or otherwise, at citizens.

Answer me this: Who granted cops a specially-modified U.S. flag to celebrate “blue lives matter,” and when exactly did that happen, and why the hell do so many people fly these as substitute U.S. flags? Has everyone forgotten American history and the use of police (as well as National Guard units) to suppress organized labor, keep blacks and other minorities in their place, intimidate ordinary citizens protesting for a cleaner environment, or whack hippies and anti-war liberals during the Vietnam War protests?

Or think of what’s happening this way: America’s violent overseas wars, thriving for almost two decades despite their emptiness, their lack of meaning, have finally and truly come home. An impoverished empire, in which violence and disease are endemic, is collapsing before our eyes. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” America’s self-styled wartime president promised, channeling a racist Miami police chief from 1967. It was a declaration meant to turn any American who happened to be near a protest into a potential victim.

As such demonstrations proliferate, Americans now face a grim prospect: the chance to be wounded or killed, then dismissed as “collateral damage.” In these years, that tried-and-false military euphemism has been applied so thoughtlessly to innumerable innocents who have suffered grievously from our unending foreign wars and now it’s coming home.

How does it feel, America?

The End of Citizen-Soldiers, the End of Citizen-Cops

I joined the military in 1981, signing up in college for the Reserve Officer Training Corps, or ROTC. I went on active duty in 1985 and served for 20 years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. I come from a family of firefighters and cops. My dad and older brother were firefighters, together with my brother-in-law and nephew. My niece and her husband are cops and my sister worked for her local police department for years. My oldest friend, a great guy I’ve known for half a century, recently retired as a deputy sheriff. I know these people because they’re my people.

Many cops — I’d say most — are decent people. But dress almost any cop in combat gear, cover him or her in armor like a stormtrooper out of Star Wars, then set all of them loose on the streets with a mandate to restore “LAW & ORDER,” as our president tweeted, and you’re going to get stormtrooper-like behavior.

Sure, I’d wager that more than a few cops enjoy it, or at least it seems that way in the videos captured by so many. But let’s remind ourselves that the cops, like the rest of America’s systems of authority, are a product of a sociopolitical structure that’s inherently violent, openly racist, deeply flawed, and thoroughly corrupted by money, power, greed, and privilege. In such a system, why should we expect them to be paragons of virtue and restraint? We don’t recruit them that way. We don’t train them that way. Indeed, we salute them as “warriors” when they respond to risky situations in aggressive ways.

Here’s my point: When I put on a military uniform in 1985, I underwent a subtle but meaningful change from a citizen to a citizen-airman. (Note how “citizen” still came first then.) Soon after, however, the U.S. military began telling me I was something more than that: I was a warrior. And that was a distinct and new identity for me, evidently a tougher, more worthy one than simply being a citizen-airman. That new “warrior” image and the mystique that grew up around it was integral to, and illustrative of, the beginning of a wider militarization of American culture and society, which exploded after the 9/11 attacks amid the “big-boy pants” braggadocio of the administration of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney as they set out to remake the world as an American possession.

Why all the “warrior” BS? Why “Generation Kill” (one of those memorable phrases of the post-9/11 era)? Was it to give us a bit more spine or something to rally around after the calamity of those attacks on iconic American targets, or perhaps something to take pride in after so many disastrous wars over the last 75 years? It took me a while to answer such questions. Indeed, it took me a while to grasp that such questions were almost beside the point. Because all this warrior talk, whether applied to the military or the cops, is truly meant to separate us from the American people, to link us instead to wider systems of impersonal authority, such as the military-industrial-congressional complex.

By “elevating” us as warriors, the elites conspired to reduce us as citizens, detaching us from a citizen’s code of civics and moral behavior. By accepting the conceit of such an identity, we warriors and former warriors became, in a sense, foreign to democracy and ever more divorced from the citizenry. We came to form foreign legions, readily exploitable in America’s endless imperial-corporate wars, whether overseas or now here.

(Notice, by the way, how, in the preceding paragraphs, I use “we” and “us,” continuing to identify with the military, though I’ve been retired for 15 years. On rereading it, I thought about revising that passage, until I realized that was precisely the point: a career military officer is, in some way, always in the military. The ethos is that strong. The same is true of cops.)

In 2009, I first asked if the U.S. military had become an imperial police force. In 2020, we need to ask if our police are now just another branch of that military, with our “homeland” serving as the empire to be conquered and exploited. That said, let’s turn to America’s cops. They’re now likely to identify as warriors, too, and indeed many of them have served in America’s violent and endless wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. These days, they’re ever more likely to identify as well with authority, as defined and exercised by the elites for whom they serve as hired guns.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the warrior-mercenary mindset of the police has been fully exposed. For what was Floyd’s great “crime”? At worst, if true, an attempt at petty theft through forgery. He’d lost his job due to the Covid-19 crisis and, like most of us, was lucky if he saw a one-time check for $1,200, even as the rich and powerful enjoyed trillions of dollars in relief.

Rarely are the police sent to prosecute scofflaws in high places. I haven’t seen any bankers being choked to death on the street under an officer’s knee.  Nor have I seen any corporate “citizens” being choked to death by cops. It’s so much easier to hassle and arrest the little people for whom, if they’re black or otherwise vulnerable, arrest may even end in death.

By standing apart from us, militarized, a thin blue line, the police no longer stand with us.

A friend of mine, an Air Force retired colonel, nailed it in a recent email to me: “I used to — maybe not enjoy but — not mind talking to the police. It was the whole ‘community partners’ thing. Growing up and through college, you just waved at cops on patrol (they’d wave back!). Over the last five years, all I get is cops staring back in what I imagine they think is an intimidating grimace. They say nothing when you say hello. They are all in full ‘battle rattle’ even when directing traffic.”

When military “battle rattle” becomes the standard gear for street cops, should we be that surprised to hear the death rattle of black men like George Floyd?

Speaking Truth to Power Isn’t Nearly Enough

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying “speaking truth to power.” It’s meant as a form of praise. But a rejoinder I once read captures its inherent limitations: power already knows the truth — and I’d add that the powerful are all too happy with their monopoly on their version of the truth, thank you very much.

It’s not enough to say that the police are too violent, or racist, or detached from society. Powerful people already know this perfectly well. Indeed, they’re counting on it. They’re counting on cops being violent to protect elite interests; nor is racism the worst thing in the world, they believe, as long as it’s not hurting their financial bottom lines. If it divides people, making them all the more exploitable, so much the better. And who cares if cops are detached from the interests of the working and lower middle classes from which they’ve come? Again, all the better, since that means they can be sicked on protesters and, if things get out of hand, those very protesters can then be blamed. If push comes to shove, a few cops might have to be fired, or prosecuted, or otherwise sacrificed, but that hardly matters as long as the powerful get off scot-free.

President Trump knows this. He talks about “dominating” the protesters. He insists that they must be arrested and jailed for long periods of time. After all, they are the “other,” the enemy. He’s willing to have them tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets just so he can pose in front of a church holding a Bible. Amazingly, the one amendment he mentioned defending in his “law and order” speech just before he walked to that church was the Second Amendment.

And this highlights Trump’s skill as a wall-builder. No, I don’t mean that “big, fat, beautiful wall” along the U.S. border with Mexico. He’s proven himself a master at building walls to divide people within America — to separate Republicans from Democrats, blacks and other peoples of color from whites, Christians from non-Christians, fervid gun owners from gun-control advocates, and cops from the little people. Divide and conquer, the oldest trick in the authoritarian handbook, and Donald Trump is good at it.

But he’s also a dangerous fool in a moment when we need bridges, not walls to unite these divided states of ours. And that starts with the cops. We need to change the way many of them think. No more “thin blue line” BS. No more cops as warriors. No more special flags for how much their lives matter. We need but a single flag for how much all our lives matter, black or white, rich or poor, the powerless as well as the powerful.

How about that old-fashioned American flag I served under as a military officer for 20 years? How about the stars and stripes that draped my father’s casket after his more than 30 years of fighting fires, whether in the forests of Oregon or the urban tenements of Massachusetts? It was good enough for him and me (and untold millions of others). It should still be good enough for everyone.

But let me be clear: my dad knew how to put out fires, but once a house was “fully involved,” he used to tell me, there’s little you can do but stand back and watch it burn while keeping the fire from spreading.

America’s forever wars in distant lands have now come home big time. Our house is lit up and on fire. Alarms are being sounded over and over again. If we fail to come together to fight the fire until our house is fully involved, we will find ourselves — and what’s left of our democracy — burning with it.

A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and history professor, William Astore is a TomDispatch regular. He is proud to count many “first responders” in his immediate family. His personal blog is Bracing Views.

Copyright 2020 William J. Astore

 

Racism and Violence in America

W.J. Astore

Violence is endemic in America.  So too is racism.  And they make for a combustible mix.

Recently, we’ve witnessed three incidents of black men either being killed or deeply discriminated against.  First there was Ahmaud Arbery, a young black man shot and killed while jogging in Georgia.  Then there was Christian Cooper, a black man birdwatching in Central Park who asked a woman to leash her dog in accordance with the law.  She called the police on him while lying that he was threatening her.  The third case saw a black man, George Floyd, being choked to death while on the ground with a police officer’s knee on his neck.  The police ignored his pleas that he couldn’t breathe.

And some people think the big problem in America is Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the National Anthem so as to highlight violence against blacks:

cartoon

I have no magical pixie dust to solve racism and violence in America.  What we need to do, collectively, is take a long look in the mirror.  We need to recognize we all bleed red.  We’re all vulnerable.  We all share (or should share) a common humanity.  And then we need to act like it.

Most people want one thing: they want to be treated with respect.  With dignity.  As equals.  Let’s do that.

Of course, it doesn’t help that President Trump is a racist.  It doesn’t help that Joe Biden bragged about locking up “those people.”  The plain truth is that we need to be and do better than our leaders.  Because, far too often, those leaders are looking for ways to divide us as a way of exploiting us more easily and effectively.

We need to reach deep down and discover (or rediscover) our common humanity.  We need to fight together for what’s right and against what’s wrong.  And that means we must stand united against violence and racism in America.

America’s Bizarre Cult of Death

KCM_FlyOverHealthcareme0249
B-2 bomber flies over Kansas City to honor Covid-19 workers

W.J. Astore

A recent news item caught my eye: “Whiteman Air Force Base [in Missouri] to salute health care workers with flyover on Tuesday: Flyover will include B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber, four T-38 Talons and two A-10 Thunderbolt lls.”  New York City had its own flyover by the aerial demonstration teams of the Navy and Air Force.  “America Strong” was the theme of the latter.

Isn’t it curious that we celebrate our life-saving medical workers with flyovers by warplanes that are designed to take life?  And, regarding the B-2 stealth bomber, a life-taker on a truly massive scale, since it’s designed for nuclear warfare.

Maybe there’s a weird form of (unintentional) honesty here.  We use death-dealing machinery to celebrate life-preserving medical workers, highlighting a bizarre cult of death in America, one seemingly embraced and advanced by Donald Trump’s policies on Covid-19, among other policies working against the health and welfare of ordinary people.

As Tom Engelhardt notes in a new piece for TomDispatch.com, Trump is only America’s latest assassin-in-chief, but this time the killing is happening here in the homeland, rather than being exported to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries across the globe.  Speaking of violence coming home, together with homeland insecurity, is there any other country in the world in which gun sales have soared during this pandemic?  From an article in The Guardian:

Estimated gun sales also soared to 2.58m in March, Small Arms Analytics and Forecasting reported, an 85.3% jump from the same time last year.

An explosion in gun sales during a pandemic suggests something about the American psyche that is truly scary.  So too do combat jets screaming in the skies as a celebration of heroic lifesavers.

Mass Shootings and American Carnage

mass-shooting

W.J. Astore

What can you say about mass shootings in America that hasn’t already been said?  El Paso and Dayton (not Toledo, Mr. Trump) are the most recent in a seemingly unending series of shootings in America.  A grim statistic:

“Dayton was the 22nd mass killing in America this year, according to an AP/USA Today/Northeastern University mass murder database, which tracks all attacks involving four or more people killed.”

Or, alternatively: “The shooting in Ohio marked the 31st deadly mass shooting in America this year, defined as those where at least three people are killed by gun violence in a single episode.”

Or, alternatively:

“As of today (Aug. 4), we are 216 days into 2019. In the US over that time, more than 1,300 people have been injured or killed in mass shootings, according to data collected by the Gun Violence Archive.

QUARTZ
Injuries and deaths related to mass shootings.

The nonprofit organization, which is based in Washington, DC, defines a mass shooting as an event in which at least four people were shot. By its calculations, that means there have been some 292 mass shootings in the US since the year began.”

In a prepared statement this morning, President Trump came out against white supremacy, racism, and bigotry, but tragically this is a clear case of “Do what I say, not what I do” for Trump.  He compounded his hypocrisy by ignoring the ready availability of assault weapons, blaming instead mental illness and violent video games, among other factors.

Firstly, the mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it.  Secondly, violent video games are a global phenomenon, but I’m not reading about dozens of mass shootings each year in Japan or Korea or Sweden.

Trump’s weak-willed words were thoroughly predictable; he’s closely aligned with the National Rifle Association and its total fixation on gun rights to the exclusion of all others.  He’s not alone in this.  When I taught in rural Pennsylvania, my students knew all about the Second Amendment.  But their knowledge of the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments was far weaker.  Yes, for many Americans guns really do trump free speech, freedom of the press, and similar rights.

Predictably, Americans search for a magic bullet (pun intended) after these horrifying massacres to put a stop to them.  How about better background checks?  Eliminating extended magazines for the millions of assault rifles that are already in the hands of Americans?  Better databases to track the mentally ill and the criminally violent?  And so on.  And we should have better background checks before you can buy a gun; we should stop selling military-style hardware; we should keep better track of dangerous people.  But steps such as these will only stem the violence (if that).  They won’t put an end to it.

Our culture is suffused with violence.  At the same time, powerful forces are at play (stoked by our very own president) to divide us, to inflame our passions, to turn us against them, where “them” is some category of “other,” as with the El Paso shooter, who targeted immigrants “invading” America.

To stop mass shootings, we must change our culture of violence.  This is made much more difficult by men like Trump, who’ve embraced violent rhetoric for their own selfish purposes.  But we must change it nonetheless, else witness more carnage across America.

Note to readers: This is not the first time I’ve written about violence and guns in America.  Here are links to a few articles on this subject at Bracing Views:

God, Country, Guns

Guns and Grievances

“People Who Cherish the Second Amendment”

America: Submerged in a Violent Cesspool

Lockdown America and School Shootings

Stop Exporting Violence, America

quote-only-americans-can-hurt-america-dwight-d-eisenhower-8-76-03

W.J. Astore

The USA is a violent land.  And perhaps that might be OK, if we limited the violence to us. But we’ve become the world’s leading exporter of deadly weaponry, a fact I was reminded of this morning as I read William Hartung’s latest article on the military-industrial complex at TomDispatch.com. In detailing the ever-growing power of the Complex, Hartung had this telling sentence:

When pressed, Raytheon officials argue that, in enabling mass slaughter, they are simply following U.S. government policy.

Tragic as that statement is, it’s also true.  As I’ve written about before, weapons ‘r’ us.  Our so-called peacetime economy is geared to war, homeland security, surveillance, and other forms of violent and coercive technologies and products.  Even as America seeks to prevent other countries from acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMD), we’re actively seeking to sell WMD to others, as long as those weapons are Made in the USA and go to “allies” that pay promptly, like the Saudis.

Being the world’s leading purveyor of violence can only lead to America’s spiritual death, as Martin Luther King Jr. argued so eloquently a half-century ago.  As MLK’s words show, this tragic reality is nothing new in America.  As Senator J. William Fulbright noted in 1970, the U.S. emerged after World War II to become “the world’s major salesman of armaments.”  Fulbright went further and quoted Marine Corps General David M. Shoup, a Medal of Honor recipient, and Shoup’s conclusion that “America has become a militaristic and aggressive nation.”  Remember, this was fifty years ago, when the U.S. at least faced a real threat from Communism, no matter how much we inflated it.  We face no equivalent threat today, no matter how much the Pentagon hyperventilates about China and Russia.

Returning to Hartung’s article, I like his title: “Eisenhower’s Worst Nightmare.”  Indeed it is, in the sense that the military-industrial complex is, ultimately, an American complex.  Which makes me think of another Eisenhower sentiment: that only Americans can truly hurt America.  That our biggest enemy is within our borders: our own violence, aggression, fear, and hatred, especially of others.

Ike was right about the Complex, and he was right about how America would truly be hurt and defeated.  The enemy is not from without.  No walls will keep him out.  No — the enemy is within.  And it won’t — indeed, it can’t — be defeated by weapons and violence.  Indeed, more weapons and violence only make it stronger.

Be an indispensable nation, America.  Be exceptional.  Be great.  As Melania Trump might say, Be Best.  How?  Stop exporting violence.  And stop the hurt within.

Can we be a superpower morally and ethically?

IMG_1555
With Scott Carrier (left) at Woods Hole

W.J. Astore

I recently did an interview with Scott Carrier that I greatly enjoyed.  Scott’s site is “Home of the Brave” at http://www.homebrave.com.

My interview, just under 20 minutes, is available at http://homebrave.com/home-of-the-brave//lets-talk-about-not-going-to-war

In the interview, Scott and I talk about war, military service, America’s intoxication with violence and power, and how we can chart a new way forward.

Thanks so much for giving it a listen.  And check out Scott’s other podcasts.  He’s done amazing work.

 

Monday Musings About America

warrior
It’s an odd thing to see a pagan warrior of ancient Greece used as a symbol of Christianity, but what matters here is the idea Christianity is synonymous with warrior violence

W.J. Astore

It’s amazing how often America’s politicians dismiss proposals that would benefit workers as “too expensive” (such as a higher minimum wage, or more affordable college education, or single-payer health care) versus how much they’re willing to approve for new weapons and wars.  With little debate, this year’s “defense” budget will be roughly $750 billion, although the real number exceeds a trillion dollars, as Bill Hartung notes here for TomDispatch.  Meanwhile, spending on education, infrastructure improvements, and so on withers.

It’s almost as if the impoverishment of America’s workers is deliberate (some would say it is).  Four decades ago, I remember reading Crane Brinton’s “The Anatomy of Revolution” in AP Modern European History.  Brinton noted how rising expectations among the lower orders can lead to revolutionary fervor.  But if you keep people down, keep them busy working two or three jobs, keep them distracted with “circuses” like unending sports coverage and Trump’s every twitch and tweet, you can control them.

Thus the establishment sees a true populist politician like Bernie Sanders as the real enemy.  Bernie raises hopes; he wants to help workers; but that’s not the point of the American system.  So, Bernie must be dismissed as “crazy,” or marginalized as a dangerous socialist, even though he’s just an old-fashioned New Dealer who wants government to work for the people.

Related to keeping people under control (by keeping them divided, distracted, and downtrodden) is to keep them fearful.  A foreign bogeyman is always helpful here, hence the demonization of Vladimir Putin.  An old friend of mine sent me an article this past weekend about Putin’s strategy in reviving Russia.  I confess I don’t follow Russia and Putin that closely.  But it strikes me that Putin has played a weak hand well, whereas U.S. leaders have played a strong hand poorly.

In the article I noted the following quote by Putin:

[we] need to build our home and make it strong and well protected … The wolf knows how to eat … and is not about to listen to anyone … How quickly all the pathos of the need to fight for human rights and democracy is laid aside the moment the need to realize one’s own interests come to the fore.

Putin’s words are from a decade ago, when the U.S. still talked about fighting for “human rights and democracy.”  Under Trump, “one’s own interests” are naked again in U.S. foreign policy under men like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo.  Is this progress?

Overall, Russia has learned (or been forced) to limit its foreign burdens, whereas the U.S. is continuing to expand its “global reach.”  Russia learned from the Cold War and is spending far less on its military, whereas the U.S. continues to spend more and more.  It’s ironic indeed if Russia is the country cashing in on its peace dividend, even as the U.S. still seems to believe that peace is impossible and that war pays.

I wonder if Russia (joined by China) spends just enough on its military to present a threat to the U.S. for those who are so eager to see and exaggerate it.  For example, China builds an aircraft carrier, or Russia builds a nuclear cruise missile, not because they’re planning unprovoked attacks against the U.S., but as a stimulus to America’s military-industrial complex.  Because America’s reaction is always eminently predictable.  The national security state seizes on any move by China or Russia as dangerous, destabilizing, and as justification for yet more military spending.  The result is a hollowing out of the U.S. (poorer education, fewer factories, weaker economy, collapsing infrastructure), even as China and Russia grow comparatively stronger by spending more money in non-military sectors.

There are complicated forces at work here.  Of course, Ike’s military-industrial-Congressional complex is always involved.  But there’s also a weird addiction to militarism and violence in the USA.  War, gun violence, and other forms of killing have become the background noise to our lives, so much so that we barely perceive the latest mass killing, or the latest overseas bombing gone wrong.  (I’d also add here the violence we’re doing to our environment, our earth, our true “homeland.”)

I mentioned violence to my old friend, and he sent me this note:

On violence and American cultural DNA one place to start is Richard Slotkin’s trilogy, Regeneration Through Violence, The Fatal Environment, and Gunfighter Nation… The gist of what I have gotten about Slotkin’s thesis is that America’s frontier past trained settlers to think of violence (against natives and against each other) as forms of rebirth both for the individual and for the community.

My friend’s comment about violence and rebirth made me think of the film “Birth of a Nation” (1915) and the infamous scene of the KKK riding to the rescue.  We in America have this notion that, in one form or another, a heavily armed cavalry will ride to the rescue and save us (from savage Indians, violent immigrants, etc.).  In a strange way, Trump’s campaign tapped this notion of rebirth through violence.  Think of his threats against immigrants – and his promises to build a wall to keep them out – and his threats to torture terrorists and even to kill their families.

Trump tapped a rich seam of redemption through violence in the USA, this yearning for some sort of violent apocalypse followed by a “second coming,” notably in conservative evangelical circles.  For when you look at “end times” scenarios in evangelical settings, peaceful bliss is not the focus.  Suffering of the unredeemed is what it’s all about.  Christ is not bringing peace but a sword to smite all the evildoers.

For people who suffer toil and trouble daily, such apocalyptic visions are a powerful distraction and may serve as a potent reactionary tonic.  Why fight for Bernie’s political revolution when Christ’s return is imminent?

That’s enough musing for one Monday morning.  Readers, what say you?

School as Prison

PrisonAir
A blueprint for America’s schools of the future?

W.J. Astore

Back in the 1970s, when I was in high school, smart aleck students used to joke about high school as “prison.”  Nowadays, American schools have metal detectors, school police, even armed teachers.  And let’s not forget reinforced doors and lockdown drills–just like real prisons!  And all these guns and security devices and police presence is together touted as “the solution” to school violence.

I thought of this when I read this morning that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where seventeen students were murdered last February, is adding metal detectors to protect students.  (Not that metal detectors would have kept out the former student/shooter, Nikolas Cruz, who murdered all those teenagers in cold blood.)  Perhaps the school is doing this to reassure parents; or to deter copy-cats; or to preempt possible lawsuits in case of future attacks.  Or maybe they really believe that having 3,200 students pass through metal detectors each and every morning is the cost of being “safe.”

One thing is certain: We’re raising our young people with a lockdown mentality.  We’re teaching them the best way to be safe is to submit passively to metal detectors and other forms of security screening.  We’re indoctrinating them with the idea that a guard with a gun is the very best form of security, and that even their teachers, charged with educating them, may be packing heat in the classroom — to keep them safe, naturally.  (These teachers may even be making a few extra bucks after completing gun training.)

Who says American students aren’t learning anything in our schools?  They’re learning every day they pass through a metal detector, or see heavily armed police in school corridors, or their teachers toting firearms.  Every day they have to submit to lockdown drills, they’re learning.

I don’t have a smart aleck observation here.  Just a sad one: that old joke about school as prison isn’t even worth a teenager’s smirk anymore.

Declaring Independence from Walls, Weapons, and Wars

old photos 004 (2)
My family’s old wringer-washer.  Look closely: as a kid, I stuck an American flag just above the “Maytag” label.

W.J. Astore

Walls and weapons and wars have come to define the USA in the 21st century.  The most infamous wall is Donald Trump’s proposed extension of the border wall with Mexico.  Weapons are everywhere, domestically with guns and mass shootings even as weapons sales overseas drive U.S. foreign policy.  Wars are simply endless in places that most Americans would struggle to identify on maps.  What percentage of Americans, for example, could identify Niger before the ambush that cost four Green Berets or Yemen before a Navy SEAL died there after Trump’s first military action (which he subsequently blamed on the generals)?  Indeed, how many Americans could identify these countries now, even with U.S. troops having died there, ostensibly in the name of fighting terrorism and keeping America safe?

I’m both a baby boomer and a retired military officer.  Looking back to the 20th century and in the context of the Cold War, when I thought of walls, images of Berlin came to mind, with desperate people risking life and limb to seek freedom in the West.  A wall was a symbol of them – you know, the Evil Empire, the Soviets, the Stasi, the freedom-deniers. The USA, land of liberty, neither needed nor wanted walls.  Weapons?  Sure, we had plenty of those when I was young, and sold lots of them too to countries overseas, when we weren’t using them ourselves to pummel Southeast Asia and other regions.  But military-style assault weapons for citizens were virtually unknown until the 1980s, and extensive weapons sales overseas had a purpose (at least in theory) of deterring communist expansion.  Nowadays, weapons sales need have no purpose other than profit for those who make and sell them.

And wars?  However evil the U.S. had acted during the Vietnam War, and indeed there’s much evil in policies that enjoin troops to “kill anything that moves,” as Nick Turse has documented in his book by that name, at least one thing can be said of that war: it ended, and America lost.  Even the Cold War ended (or so we believed, until recent claims that Russia and China represent the threats of the future).  Today, America’s wars never end.  Retired generals like David Petraeus spout gibberish about the wisdom of a “sustainable sustained commitment” to the war in Afghanistan, with the Pentagon babbling on about “long” and “generational” campaigns, as if prolonging wars for less-than-vital causes is a sign of U.S. strength.

The point is this: Walls were not us.  Weapons, however prevalent throughout U.S. history, were not treated as panaceas and sold as solutions to everything from classroom shootings to saving American jobs to boosting economic growth and cutting trade imbalances.  Even America’s wars were not open-ended or openly described as “generational.”  All of this is either new today or a twisted version of past policies and practices.

The Unmaking of American Idealism

As a teenager, I embraced American idealism.  The bicentennial was coming in 1976, and I was the proud owner of a reproduction of the Declaration of Independence.  It was on pseudo-parchment paper, a cheap copy for sure, but I treated it as if were precious because it was – and is.  It’s precious for the ideals it represents, the enshrinement of self-evident truths like life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, however imperfectly America upheld and advanced these in practice.

Maybe this is why I bought a roll of American flag stickers and stuck them on everything (including our kitchen door and our washing machine, which must have thrilled my parents).  Back then, I thought I knew what America stood for, or at least what my country stood against.  Despite all our sins, America was anti-wall, and even as we built and sold weapons and fought proxy wars in a contest with the Soviets, there was a sense America stood for freedom, or so I believed.  Meanwhile, in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam, we were also not as eager to fight wars everywhere and without end.

But that was then, and this is now.  Forget about the “Age of Aquarius,” a trippy song about peace and love that I remember singing when I was eight years old.  Today in America, it’s the Age of Mars, the Age of Walls and Weapons and War.

Coming of age in the 1970s, I heard and read a lot about war.  Vietnam had been a disaster, but there was always the example of World War II to set things right in my mind.  I could read about American heroism at Wake Island and during the Battle of the Bulge; I could watch movies like “Patton” that glorified tough-talking U.S. generals; I could look to my uncle who won a bronze star fighting at Guadalcanal in the Pacific.  I knew (or so I thought) that America stood for freedom and against tyranny.

But that ideal of freedom was always tinged by images of violent frontier justice, as depicted in popular culture.  Memorable movies of my teen years included Clint Eastwood playing a rogue cop in “Dirty Harry,” Charles Bronson playing a shattered vigilante in “Death Wish,” and John Wayne playing tough cop roles in movies like “McQ” and “Brannigan.”  These movies were clear about one thing: the rule of law wasn’t enough to keep us safe.  Sometimes, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, which usually involved Clint or Chuck or John (and, later, Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo) dispensing justice with fists and from the barrels of various (big) guns.

Extreme violence as well as images of the lone gunfighter were and are features of American history and culture, of course.  But these were counterbalanced in the 1960s and 1970s by peace anthems such as John Lennon’s “Imagine.”  A less known song, one I sang as a kid, was “Billy don’t be a hero” (how could I resist: It had my name in it).  In this song, young Billy wants to go off to war, but his fiancée discourages him.  Predictably, Billy goes anyway, the words of his fiancée following him (Billy don’t be a hero/don’t be a fool with your life).  Billy, after volunteering for a dangerous mission, dies a hero, the government sending a laudatory letter to his fiancée, who tearfully tosses it into the trash.

That song made an impression, though it didn’t stop me from joining the military.  Why?  Because I bought the narrative: the U.S. was fighting a war of survival against godless communism, showing patient resolve as we worked to contain a threat to freedom around the world.

That cold war ended more than 25 years ago, yet nevertheless the U.S. continues to build and sell more weapons than any other country; to support higher and higher military spending; and to wage more wars in more places than ever.  Clinton or Bush, Obama or Trump, the war song remains the same.  It all represents a narrowing of national horizons, a betrayal of American promise, one we’ll overcome only when we change course and reject walls and weapons and war.

Stopping Walls, Weapons, and Wars

There are two war parties in the U.S. today.  We call them Republicans and Democrats.  When it comes to fostering and feeding war, both are essentially the same.  Both are slaves to the national security state, even if Democrats make a show of rattling their chains a bit more.  Both define patriotism in militaristic terms and loyalty in terms of blanket support of, even reverence for, American military adventurism and interventionism.  Political candidates who have rival ideas, such as Libertarian Gary Johnson (remember him?) or Green Party candidate Jill Stein, are not even allowed on the stage.  Even when heard, they’re dismissed as jokes.

In 2016, for example, Johnson suggested cuts to military spending approaching 20%; Jill Stein suggested cuts as deep as 50%.  Their proposals, however, were simply rejected as preposterous by the mainstream media.  Even Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, refused to propose serious cuts to military spending: if he had, he knew he’d be dismissed as either a weak-kneed appeaser or an unserious ignoramus.  (Recall how Gary Johnson was depicted as clueless by the mainstream media because he couldn’t place Aleppo in Syria or instantly name a foreign leader he adored.)

Unmasked military authoritarianism is the new reality in U.S. government and society today, complete with a martial parade in Washington, D.C. come this November.  This is no surprise.  Recall how both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump boasted of how many generals and admirals supported them in their respective presidential campaigns, as if they couldn’t run for office unless they’d been anointed by men in military uniforms wearing stars.

And we dare call this a democracy?

Seeing the problem clearly is a way to begin to solve it.  Want to restore American liberty?  Stop building walls (and tearing children from parents).  Stop buying and selling massive amounts of weaponry here and everywhere.  And stop waging war across the globe. Americans used to know the chief result of divisive walls, proliferating weapons, and endless war is chaos everywhere and democracy nowhere.  How did we come to forget this lesson?

If we take these simple yet profound steps, I could look again at my childhood copy of the Declaration of Independence with a renewed sense of hope.