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?
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.
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.
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?