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.
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.
Once again, the U.S. military has launched Tomahawk cruise missiles against Syria, as well as a new weapon called the JASSM-ER, described as “a stealthy long-range air-fired cruise missile.” According to FP: Foreign Policy, the latter weapon is “likely being closely watched in Tokyo, where military officials are considering purchasing the missile to give the country’s military a long-range strike capability against North Korean targets, Japan Times reports.” In short, the U.S. military demonstrated a new weapon for an ally and potential client while striking a country (Syria) that has no way of striking back directly at the U.S.
April 16/18: JASSM-ER makes its combat debut The USAF has fired Lockheed Martin’s AGM-158B Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile Extended Range (JASSM-ER) missile in combat for the first time. 19 such missiles were launched from two B-1B Lancer bombers during last weekend’s sortie against Syrian chemical weapon research and storage facilities, and were joined by 57 Tomahawk missiles launched from US naval assets, as well as Storm Shadow and SCALP missiles from British and French warplanes. While Russian sources in Syria claim that Russian and Syrian air defenses managed to down 71 or the total 105 cruise missiles launched during the Friday night operation—claims Washington refutes—a report on the mission by the Aviationist reckon the newer missiles—in particular the JASSM-ER, SCALP and Storm Shadow—would have been highly effective against their targets.
One thing is certain: business is booming yet again for Lockheed Martin.
Technology shapes thought even as it becomes a substitute for it. It amazes me, for example, how the U.S. military threw technology at the “problem” of Vietnam in an attempt to “win” that war. Everything short of nuclear weapons was unleashed on Southeast Asia, yet those brave people refused to surrender. U.S. Presidents from Kennedy to Nixon were always sending messages through airpower and other forms of destructive technology, but the Vietnamese couldn’t have cared less about those “messages.” They had one goal: expel the invader, unify the country, and they stuck to it despite all the high explosive, napalm, defoliants, electronic fences, and everything else inflicted upon them.
Americans tend to see technology as a panacea. Even deadly technology. So, for example, what’s the proposed solution to gun violence in the USA? According to the NRA and our president, it’s more guns. What’s the solution to violence in Syria? According to the military and our president, it’s more bombs and missiles. One clear winner emerges here: those who produce the guns, bombs, and missiles.
Tomahawks and drones and similar weapons are all about action at a distance. They incur no risk of harm to U.S. troops. As a result, America’s leaders use them liberally to send “signals” and to add to the body count. They strike because they can and because it’s relatively easy. Action serves as a substitute for thought. The only strategy is to keep blowing things up.
The U.S. strategy, such as it is, is defined and driven by Tomahawks and drones and related weaponry. These weapons make possible “global reach, global power,” but they do not facilitate global thinking. Promising decision or at least quick results, they lead only to more bodies and deeper quagmires.
The U.S. keeps getting bogged down in wars in part because of the faith the government places in technology. So much is invested in military weaponry that it becomes a substitute for thought.
But there are no missions accomplished: there is only more destruction.
The business of America is weapons sales. That much is true when you consider the following snippet today from FP: Foreign Policy:
Drone sales. The United States is looking to make changes to a major international arms control treaty that would open the door for wider exports of military drones, Defense Newsreports. The proposed change to the Missile Technology Control Regime would make it easier for nations to sell drones.
Proliferation of drones: What could go wrong?
America is the world’s leader in drone technology, and the companies that have developed them see even bigger profits on the horizon if they can sell them to America’s allies around the globe. The nature of drones is that they make killing easier — usually bloodless — for those countries that possess the technology. They promise results, but the American use of drones in places like Iraq and Afghanistan has not led to any resolution of those conflicts. Only the body count has increased.
A famous utterance attributed to General Robert E. Lee during the U.S. Civil War is, “It is well that war is so terrible – lest we should grow too fond of it.” His words capture the idea that war is an elemental thing – and also a seductive one. Much like a storm-tossed ocean, war is relentless, implacable, and unsparing. It is chaotic, arbitrary, and deadly. It is not to be bargained with; only to be endured.
Given its ferocity, its rapacity, the enormity of its waste and devastation, war is best to be avoided, especially since war itself has its appeals, especially since war itself can be intoxicating, as the quotation from Lee suggests, and as the title of Anthony Loyd’s fine book on the war in Bosnia, My War Gone By, I Miss It So (1999), indicates.
What happens when we decouple war’s terrible nature from its intoxicating force? What happens when one side can kill with impunity in complete safety? Lee’s words suggest that a nation that decouples war from its terrors will likely grow too fond of it. The temptation to use deadly force will no longer be restrained by knowledge of the horrors unleashed by the same.
Such thoughts darken the reality of America’s growing fondness for drone warfare. Our land-based drone pilots patrol the skies of foreign lands like Afghanistan in complete safety. They unleash appropriately named Hellfire missiles to smite our enemies. The pilots see a video feed of the carnage they inflict; the American people see and experience nothing. In rare cases when ordinary Americans see drone footage on television, what they witness is something akin to a “Call of Duty” video game combined with a snuff film. War porn, if you will.
Many Americans seem happy that we can smite foreign “militants” at no risk to ourselves. They trust that our military (and the CIA) rarely misidentifies a terrorist, and that “collateral damage,” that mind-numbing euphemism that obscures the reality of innocent men, women, and children obliterated by missiles, is the regrettable price of keeping America safe.
But the reality is that sloppy intelligence and the fog and friction of war combine to make seemingly antiseptic drone warfare much like all other forms of war: bloody, wasteful, and terrible. Terrible, that is, for those on the receiving end of American firepower. Not terrible for us.
There is a real danger that today’s drone warfare has become the equivalent to the Dark Side of the Force as described by Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back: a quicker, easier, more seductive form of terror. It is indeed seductive to deploy the technological equivalent of Darth Vader’s throat-constricting powers at a safe distance. We may even applaud ourselves for our prowess while doing so. We tell ourselves that we are killing only the bad people, and that the few innocents caught in the crosshairs constitute an accidental but nonetheless unavoidable price of keeping America safe.
Once again, the USA leads the world in weapons sales, notes SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The 100 biggest arms producers accounted for $375 billion in weapons sales in 2016, with US firms having by far the largest share at $217 billion. That’s right: the US accounts for roughly 58% of the global arms trade. We’re #1! We’re #1!
Not only do we arm our friends but our foes as well, notes FP: Foreign Policy, which has the following SitRep (situation report) for today:
U.S. weapons used by ISIS. A new report from Conflict Armament Research, a U.K.-based weapons tracking group, outlines in fascinating detail the industrial-scale weapons manufacturing capabilities the Islamic State boasted of in its prime… But what might be most notable are the American-supplied weapons found amid the ruins — the aftermath of secretive American efforts to provide small rebel groups with anti-tank rockets and other guided munitions. The transfer of the rockets, purchased from European countries, violated end-user agreements signed by the United States pledging not to transfer the weapons to third parties. In some cases, it took only a few weeks for the weapons to end up in the hands of Islamic State fighters after being delivered to allegedly friendly forces.
Let’s face it: $217 billion is an enormous amount of money, and the weapons trade is enormously profitable to the US. America’s wars are not coming to an end anytime soon: there’s simply too much money being made on manufacturing and selling war.
This puts me to mind of observations made by Father Daniel Berrigan, who served prison time for protesting the Vietnam War. Berrigan wrote with eloquence against war, and his words from a half-century ago are as timely today as they were during the Vietnam protests:
“we are powerless to inquire why it is easier to continue to slaughter than to stop it, why the historical cult of violence has become the mainstay of policy–both foreign and domestic, or why our economy so requires warmaking that perpetual war has united with expanding profits as the chief national purpose.”
And that was when the US still had a manufacturing base for consumer goods that hadn’t withered from “free” trade deals like NAFTA and other globalization efforts. The global market the US dominates today is not for consumer goods but for wares of destruction.
When you sow the winds of weaponry and war, and profit mightily from it, do you not eventually have to reap the whirlwind of destruction?
President Trump is hawking weapons in the Middle East. After concluding a deal with the Saudis for $110 billion in weaponry, he sought out the Emir of Qatar and said their discussions would focus on “the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment.”
Trump’s reference to American weapons as “beautiful” echoed the recent words of Brian Williams at MSNBC, who characterized images from the Tomahawk missile attack on Syria as “beautiful,” not once but three times.
We can vilify Trump and Williams for seeing beauty in weapons that kill, but we must also recognize Americans love their technology of death. It’s one big reason why we have more than 300 million guns in America, enough to arm virtually every American, from cradle to grave.
Why do we place so much faith in weapons? Why do we love them so?
In military affairs, America is especially prone to putting its faith in weapons. The problem is that often weaponry is either less important than one thinks, or seductive in its promise. Think of U.S. aerial drones, for example. They’ve killed a lot of people without showing any decisiveness.
Technology is a rational and orderly endeavor, but war is irrational and chaotic. Countries develop technology for war, thinking they are adding order and predictability, when they are usually adding just another element of unpredictability while expanding death.
U.S. air power is a great example — death everywhere, but no decisiveness. Look at Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia). The U.S. obliterated vast areas with high explosive and napalm and Agent Orange, killing millions without winning the war. The technological image of America today is not stunning cars or clever consumer inventions but rather Predator and Reaper drones and giant bombs like MOAB.
Profligate expenditures on weapons and their export obviously feed America’s military-industrial complex. Such weapons are sold by our politicians as job-creators, but they’re really widow-makers and life-takers. Americans used to describe armament makers as “merchants of death,” until, that is, we became the number one producer and exporter of these armaments. Now they’re “beautiful” to our president and to our media mouthpieces.
We have a strange love affair with weapons that borders on a fetish. I’ve been to a few military re-enactments, in which well-intended re-enactors play at war. The guys I’ve talked to are often experts on the nuts and bolts of the military weaponry they carry, but of course the guns aren’t loaded. It’s all bloodless fun, a “war game,” if you will.
Nowadays real war is often much like a video game, at least to U.S. “pilots” sitting in trailers in Nevada. It’s not a game to an Afghan or Yemeni getting blown to bits by a Hellfire missile fired by a drone. For some reason, foreigners on the receiving end of U.S. weaponry don’t think of it as “beautiful.” Nor do we, when our weapons are turned against us.
Enough with the “beautiful” weapons, America. Let’s stick to the beauty of spacious skies and amber waves of grain.
At this moment, it’s hard to think of a better symbol of American militarism than a giant bomb with a U.S. flag on it. President Donald Trump touted the use of the “mother of all bombs” (MOAB) in Afghanistan as a “very, very successful mission” even though evidence of that success is scant. He further cited MOAB as evidence of the “tremendous difference, tremendous difference” between his administration’s willingness to use force and Obama’s. In short, Trump loved MOAB precisely because Obama didn’t use it. To Trump, MOAB was a sort of penis extender and a big middle finger all-in-one. Virility and vulgarity.
MOAB is an icon of U.S. militarism, as are other weapons in the American arsenal. Weapons like our warplanes, aircraft carriers, Predator and Reaper drones, and Tomahawk and Hellfire missiles. U.S. foreign policy often hinges on or pivots about the deployment of these icons of power, whether it’s aircraft carriers and anti-missile systems being sent to Korea or more bombs and missiles being used in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, among other countries.
Weapons sales further define U.S. foreign policy. Witness the recent announcement of $100 billion in arms for the Saudis, soon to be confirmed by Trump in his forthcoming trip to Saudi Arabia. This sale sets up even more military aid for Israel, in that Washington insists Israel must always maintain a qualitative edge in weaponry over its Arab rivals.
Unlike, say, Wilhelmine Germany, which elevated Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg to iconic status during and after World War I, America today is lacking in winning generals. Sure, there have been a few pretenders. William Westmoreland in Vietnam, H. Norman Schwarzkopf in Desert Storm, Tommy Franks in Iraqi Freedom, and David Petraeus of “Surge” fame come to mind, but their “victories” were either illusory or lacking in staying power. Since we can’t idolize our generals, we celebrate our weapons instead.
These weapons are indeed iconic symbols. They capture an ideology of destruction. A predilection for spreading misery worldwide, as Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest must-read article at TomDispatch.com. As Engelhardt notes in his “send-out” message to his piece:
The first part of my latest post focuses on the now seven month-long U.S.-backed Iraqi military offensive against the city of Mosul, which shows little sign of ending and has reduced that city, like so many other places in the region, to ruins, if not rubble. Mosul, in other words, has been on my mind, but perhaps not completely for the reason you might expect. Its destruction (and the generation of yet more uprooted people and refugees) has led me to wonder what ever happened to the globalizers who for so many years told us about the wonders of tying the planet ever more tightly together and leveling all playing fields. It seems obvious to me that war, American-style, these last 15 years, has played a distinctly globalizing role on this ever smaller planet of ours — just globalizing misery, not happy news. In this piece I use the destruction of Mosul to lay out my thoughts on just what globalization really means in 2017, why the Trump presidency is linked to such grim events, and just why the globalizers have stopped talking about the phenomenon.
When I read Tom’s note above about the “leveling” of “playing fields,” my first thought was that America is indeed working to level the world — just not in the figurative sense of promoting economic equality, but in the literal sense of leveling areas with bombs, cities like Mosul, for example, or alleged training areas for terrorists in Afghanistan. As Engelhardt himself notes in his article, U.S. military action isn’t making the world flatter in the sense of equitable globalization; it’s simply flattening areas with overwhelming explosive force.
Most Americans simply don’t know or care much about foreign cities being leveled/flattened by America’s icons of power. You might say it’s not on our radar screens. The media and our leaders do a very good job of keeping us divided, distracted, and downtrodden. What American has time to worry about Mosul or some obscure region of Afghanistan? Unless or until the leveling and flattening come our way, to our cities and valleys, but by that point it will be far too late to act.
With all our talk of MOAB and aircraft carriers and missiles and their “beauty” and “tremendous success,” are we that far away from the lost souls in the movie “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” who elevated the atomic bomb as their false idol, their version of the Biblical golden calf?