Reprinted from Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF) under a Creative Commons License
The twin plagues of ISIS and Ebola thrive on the breakdown of the existing order.
In his novel The Plague, Albert Camus describes how death comes to an ugly French port in Algeria.
Thanks to an infestation of rats and the fleas they carry, the bubonic plague descends upon the city in the spring and intensifies during the hot summer. After a short period of denial, the residents panic, then sink into despondency and alcoholism. The port is put under quarantine. Undeterred by the apathy of the population and the danger of exposure, a small number of courageous individuals mobilize to fight the epidemic and eventually beat back the invader.
Camus took great care to detail the symptoms of the disease. But for all his medical exactitude, the French writer was not primarily interested in epidemiology. His inspiration was a different kind of infection. The novel is set some time in the 1940s. The plague is Nazism, and those who fight the disease stand in for the heroes of the French Resistance. It is a supremely apt allegory, for did not the Nazis claim that their victims were vermin? Camus surely must have enjoyed reincarnating the German fascists as the lowest of the low: bloodsucking fleas and desperate rats.
The twin plagues of Nazism and bubonic plague, except for some isolated cases, are behind us. But now it seems that a different pair of plagues is in our midst.
Today’s headlines are filled with similar stories of the spread of death and destruction in the Middle East and Africa. American commentators worry that these plagues will burst their borders and somehow spread to these shores. And, as in Camus’s novel, these diseases point to something larger, not the imposition of a new malignant system but the breakdown of the existing order.
In West Africa, the plague is Ebola, a terrifying fever that ends in massive hemorrhaging. The mortality rate, if untreated, is as high as bubonic plague. But at least with the modern version of the Black Death, treatment brings the mortality rate down to 15 percent. Ebola, by contrast, resists treatment. There are no vaccines for this hemorrhagic fever—though there’s promising news out of Canada—and the few treatments that have been used remain highly experimental. Doctors and officials establish quarantines and hope the disease will burn itself out. With airlines shutting down service to the infected region, hampering efforts to deliver medical supplies, the disease continues to rage on.
Ebola has so far claimed around 1,500 lives. This is terrible, of course, but it pales in comparison to how many children succumb to diarrhea in Africa. According to a 2010 report, 2,000 African children die every day of a disease that can be prevented through relatively cheap methods: safe water and hygiene. But diarrhea is not a communicable disease in the same sense as the plague or Ebola. And no one in the United States worries that a summit of African leaders or the repatriation of infected patients will spread an epidemic of diarrhea stateside. Ebola monopolizes the headlines because what grabs attention is fear (along with the usual colonial images of Africans as dirty and irresponsible).
The panic is, of course, more acute in the areas hardest hit by Ebola. Consider the case of Kandeh Kamara, a brave 21-year-old who volunteered to help fight the disease in Sierra Leone. He was promptly drafted to become a “burial boy” responsible for dealing with the corpses of the infected. “In doing their jobs, the burial boys have been cast out of their communities because of fear that they will bring the virus home with them,” writes Adam Nossiter and Ben Solomon in apowerful piece in The New York Times. Talk about thankless tasks. Kandeh Kamara initially received no payment for his work and had to beg for food on the street. He now gets $6 a day and hopes to rent an apartment, though landlords often refuse to lease to the burial boys.
Ebola is bad news, but it hasn’t generated the same kind of fury as that other fast-spreading scourge, namely the Islamic State (IS). The recent beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley has ratcheted up the outrage of U.S. observers.
It’s certainly not the first beheading that IS has done. The group specializes inmeting out barbarous punishments—decapitation, crucifixion, amputations. But just as Ebola’s impact became real for Americans when it infected people “like us”—two U.S. missionaries in Liberia—the United States was prompted to act against IS when it began killing non-Muslims, first the stranded Yazidis and then the abducted journalist.
IS has spread quickly, and so has the panic that has accompanied its territorial acquisition. There have been the inevitable analogies to Nazism. But even those who don’t invoke Hitler are quick to use Manichean language to describe the IS challenge.
“We can see evil through the eye slits of the ski mask worn by Foley’s killer,” writes David Ignatius in a Washington Post commentary entitled The New Battle Against Evil. “But stopping that evil is a harder task.”
The IS killers are a nasty piece of work, and their ideology is thoroughly malign. But I hesitate to use the language of good and evil. Such moralistic terminology presumes that they, the beheaders, are a Satanic force that can only be exorcised with whatever version of holy water our angelic forces dispense—air strikes, boots on the ground, military aid to the Kurdish peshmerga, efforts in the community to dissuade angry young men from taking the next flight to Mosul.
We, on the other hand, are good. We would never behead anyone. Those we execute “deserve” their punishment (though the occasional innocent person might inadvertently fall through the cracks). And the civilian casualties from our military offensives, because we are by definition good, are simply mistakes. After all, we don’t publicly celebrate the deaths of Afghan civilians from our drone strikes (45 in 2013 alone) or the deaths of over 400 children in Gaza. But our protestations of innocence are little consolation to the families of the victims.
At what point do mistakes aggregate into something evil? At the very least, do they prevent us from claiming the mantle of good? And, of course, it’s not just the mistakes that are problematic but also the deliberate policies that, for instance, align Washington with dictators and other murderous actors. U.S. disgust with IS may already have prompted intelligence sharing with the regime in Damascus, though the Obama administration has denied such deals.
Camus had some choice words for those who are reluctant to call evil by its name. “Our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences,” he wrote in The Plague. “A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions.”
Humanists perhaps disbelieve in pestilences. “I used to not believe in evil,” confesses Richard Cohen this week in a Washington Post column declaring a “return of evil” with ISIS. Once a liberal humanist, Cohen long ago remade himself into a liberal hawk.
I still consider myself a humanist. But my brand of humanism sees pestilence everywhere. Indeed, I tend to see pestilence not only in the acts of individuals but in the structures within which the plague takes root and spreads. And this is where the two plagues intersect, Ebola and IS. They both prosper where the immune system is weak.
When it comes to medical infrastructure, Africa definitely has a compromised immune system. The continent has been hit hard by HIV/AIDS (70 percent of those living with HIV are in Africa), cholera (major outbreaks took place recently in Senegal, Zimbabwe, and Sierra Leone), and malaria (an African child dies every minute from this disease). Ebola has spread rapidly because of critical shortages in medical staff and supplies.
But the deeper reason is environmental: the clear-cutting of forests that have served as a traditional barrier to pathogens. West Africa has one of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world, losing nearly a million hectares a year. The forests are Africa’s natural defenses, and Ebola is a sign that these defenses have been fatally weakened. What used to stay in remote villages now spreads quickly to urban areas.
The recent victories of IS in Syria and Iraq, meanwhile, suggest not a breakdown in the environmental system but in the political one. IS is not simply a band of serial killers. They have a distinct ideology and set of political motives. Nor does it matter whether they are operating in a formally dictatorial or democratic environment. IS thrives both where Assad rules with an iron fist and where Saddam is long gone.
The common denominator is chaos. IS has ruthlessly expanded in the grey areas beyond the reach of the rule of law. In Syria, it has prospered in regions that already broke loose from the country during the uprising. In Iraq, it took advantage of a paralyzing conflict between Shi’a and Sunni that left the northern reaches of the country tenuously connected to the central government.
Local governance, whether it’s democratic or authoritarian, serves the same function as the forests of West Africa. Such governance holds society together. When it deteriorates, the very cellular structure breaks down. In Ebola, the cell walls fray and the patient bleeds out. With a virus like IS, the fibers of the social fabric fray and large sections of the country bleed out.
There are, of course, many differences between a pestilence like Ebola and a movement like IS. But they are both the result of systemic breakdown. They are opportunistic infections.
In both cases there are no magic pills. Even if we come up with an antidote to this version of Ebola, as long as we continue to cut down the forests of Africa, more potent versions will continue to appear and spread. And if we attempt to obliterate IS only with bombs or boots on the ground, it will simply pop up somewhere else where the conditions favor such desperate efforts to create a totalitarian order. Instead we should focus on the conditions that give rise to these phenomena—and our role in helping to perpetuate these conditions.
Camus recommended vigilance. Pestilence, he concluded, “bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves and…perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.” The current plagues have certainly been a bane. Whether they also help to enlighten us remains to be seen.
Here are some tough words about the Obama presidency from Cornell West, who argues persuasively that the fetish for the middle ground in politics often makes for poor leadership.
In the interview Thomas Frank asks West, “What on earth ails the man? Why can’t he fight the Republicans? Why does he need to seek a grand bargain?”
“I think Obama, his modus operandi going all the way back to when he was head of the [Harvard] Law Review, first editor of the Law Review and didn’t have a piece in the Law Review. He was chosen because he always occupied the middle ground. He doesn’t realize that a great leader, a statesperson, doesn’t just occupy middle ground. They occupy higher ground or the moral ground or even sometimes the holy ground. But the middle ground is not the place to go if you’re going to show courage and vision. And I think that’s his modus operandi. He always moves to the middle ground. It turned out that historically, this was not a moment for a middle-ground politician. We needed a high-ground statesperson and it’s clear now he’s not the one.”
West also says:
“He posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency, a national security presidency. The torturers go free. The Wall Street executives go free. The war crimes in the Middle East, especially now in Gaza, the war criminals go free. And yet, you know, he acted as if he was both a progressive and as if he was concerned about the issues of serious injustice and inequality and it turned out that he’s just another neoliberal centrist with a smile and with a nice rhetorical flair. And that’s a very sad moment in the history of the nation because we are—we’re an empire in decline. Our culture is in increasing decay. Our school systems are in deep trouble. Our political system is dysfunctional. Our leaders are more and more bought off with legalized bribery and normalized corruption in Congress and too much of our civil life. You would think that we needed somebody—a Lincoln-like figure who could revive some democratic spirit and democratic possibility.”
Read the full interview here:
Reprinted from TomDispatch.com
How to Save the Iconic West from the Cow
By Chip Ward
The great novelist Wallace Stegner sorted the conflicting impulses in his beloved American West into two camps. There were the “boomers” who saw the frontier as an opportunity to get rich quick and move on: the conquistadors, the gold miners, the buffalo hunters, the land scalpers, and the dam-building good ol’ boys. They are still with us, trying to drill and frack their way to Easy Street across our public lands. Then there were those Stegner called the “nesters” or “stickers” who came to stay and struggled to understand the land and its needs. Their quest was to become native.
That division between boomers and nesters is, of course, too simple. All of us have the urge to consume and move on, as well as the urge to nest, so our choices are rarely clear or final. Today, that old struggle in the American West is intensifying as heat-parched, beetle-gnawed forests ignite in annual epic firestorms,reservoirs dry up, and Rocky Mountain snow is ever more stained with blowing desert dust.
The modern version of nesters are the conservationists who try to partner with the ecosystems where they live. Wounded landscapes, for example, can often be restored by unleashing nature’s own self-healing powers. The new nesters understand that you cannot steer and control an ecosystem but you might be able to dance with one. Sage Sorensen dances with beavers.
Dances with Beavers
The dance floor is my Utah backyard, which, like most backyards out here, is a watershed. At its top is the Aquarius Plateau, the horizon I see from my deck, a gracefully rolling forest of pines and aspens that stretches for 50 miles to the south, 20 miles wide at its midpoint, and reaches 11,300 feet at its highest ridge.
The forest on top of the plateau is unique, as trees rarely grow almost two miles above sea level. That high forest is heated by the deserts that fall away around the plateau’s shoulders, culminating in the amber, bone, and honey-toned canyons of Capitol Reef National Park on its eastern flank and on the west by Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
During a long career with the Bureau of Land Management, Sage Sorenson saw firsthand how beavers created rich green habitat out of overgrazed and burned-over land. Now retired, he calls himself a “beaver believer” and devotes his days to monitoring and protecting scattered “remnant” beaver colonies in our region. Quietly but persistently, he advocates for their reintroduction onto stressed landscapes that need their services.
Beavers are the original geo-engineers. It’s no exaggeration to credit them for their major role in building the North American landscape. In pre-colonial times, there were as many as 400 million of them. They used their big buckteeth and tough paddle-tails to build dams across every stream imaginable, spreading water to a Noah’s Ark-worth of creatures that thrive in the wet habitats they create. Now, of course, they are mostly long gone from the land, and conservationists want them back.
Sorenson recently trained and got certified to trap and transport beavers in anticipation of restocking the streams that tumble down the Aquarius Plateau. He is convinced that it is only a matter of time before they are reintroduced. After all, several of those streams have already been scientifically assessed and identified as prime candidates for such a reintroduction program. But when I talked to him at a café in the small hamlet of Boulder, Utah, he was feeling discouraged.
A remnant colony of beavers along North Creek, he told me, is just about gone. Over the last two years, at least 34 of them have been illegally shot or legally trapped by a local irrigation company. Although beaver reintroduction is getting rave reviews in places like Scotland where the last one had been trapped out hundreds of years ago and Oregon where they are healing land hammered by logging, in Utah the road back will be rough.
Flat-Tail Climate Hero
Beavers were once abundant across the Aquarius Plateau, but they have now retreated to its high headwaters where they do not compete with cattle or cowboys with guns. Visiting them requires strong lungs for steep hikes and sturdy boots to navigate flooded meadows. Up close, beavers look like especially large rodents that swim. Call them cute if you care to, but a wet mammal that smells like its mud hut is neither cuddly nor charismatic. They are not, in other words, like the penguins or polar bears that adorn fundraising appeals from wildlife advocates.
Nevertheless, as Sage patiently explains, they are key to the restoration of damaged watersheds. First, their dams create ponds and wetlands for diverse plants, amphibians, fish, and fowl. Eventually, those ponds fill with silt and become meadows, creating yet more habitat for another round of plants and animals.
Letting beavers do their work is one powerful way to make the land and its creatures resilient in a time of climatological stress. For example, across the planet a wide range of amphibians, including frogs and salamanders, are declining fast, becoming rare or extinct. Their sudden decline may be due to habitat loss, pollution, viruses enabled by a warming climate, or all of the above, but their disappearance is one more measure of the ecological catastrophe now underway. Beavers make wet habitat where amphibians can recover and thrive.
The aquatic insects that bloom in wetlands feed populations of stressed songbirds. Their ponds shelter fingerling fish — beavers are vegetarians — and baby ducks. Beavers are ecological servants par excellence who give life to the land. They are not only beneficial agents of biodiversity, however: humans benefit, too.
In Western forests, the beaver’s stick-in-the-mud architecture spreads, slows, and deepens the flow of water from spring runoff so that it recharges underground aquifers, springs, and seeps. Slowing that runoff means that the streams feeding reservoirs last longer, possibly all summer. That’s important for local agriculture, which depends on irrigation. Beaver dams improve water quality by trapping sediment that filters pollution. A lush-green landscape also inhibits landslides, floods, and fire. So beavers are not only good for the usual crew of endangered species, but also for millions of humans whose drinking water originates in heat-stressed watersheds that could be restored by the beaver’s hydrological habits.
Considering all the benefits beavers bring with them, why haven’t we rushed to return them to their keystone role in the Western landscape? The simple answer to a complicated question is one word: cows.
When beavers re-occupy their historic homelands, they compete with the human economy that once drove them deep into the wilds. Farmers and ranchers who irrigate their fields via ditches and culverts hate them. There are simple techniques to guard against beavers clogging irrigation systems but they are either unlearned or resisted as yet another example of unwanted government intrusion on Western life. Across the rural West, ranchers have power and influence way beyond their numbers or their contribution to the economy.
The Elephant in the Room Is a Cow
One man’s keystone species is another’s varmint. For conservationists like Sorenson who are devoted to bringing beavers back, seeing one with a bullet hole in it is not just sad, but taken as a very personal warning. Despite the popularity and success of beaver reintroduction elsewhere, in much of the American West it runs into an outsized obstacle — the iconic western cow. Not ol’ Bossy chewing a cud in Wisconsin, but the wild steer chased by a cowboy with a lasso yelling “yeeha!” That cow is sacred.
In reality, cattle ranching is a tough, marginal business in this part of America and grazing on public lands makes it possible. In other words, it’s heavily subsidized by distant taxpayers. Those grazing fees Cliven Bundy objects to cost less than a buck and a half per cow per month for all it can eat on federal land — food stamps for cows, indeed. Cattle ranchers, whose families have been on the land for generations, think of grazing allotments on federal land as an entitlement, even if that attitude contradicts the image of the independent cowboy they cherish. About 250 million acres — or more than half of the federal lands administered by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management — are open to cattle grazing, and that’s a large arena where cowboys and conservationists compete.
Moving cows out of sensitive riparian areas (streams and springs) or putting competitors like wolves and beavers onto the land with them is seen by ranchers as the start of a slippery slope that might lead to removing cows altogether. That is, however, unlikely. In the West, cows rule. The soundtrack of Manifest Destiny may once have been the sharp crack of gunfire aimed at Indians and wolves, but it was followed by a mellow moo. Cows graze over the bones of bison and the other creatures we eliminated to make room for them.
Our Dams, Not Theirs
Like the beavers they replaced, cows have reshaped the land — not, in their case, by creating habitat but by destroying it. The pioneers who first came upon southern Utah described the vast grasslands they found there. That grass is long gone. The soil blew away, too, and rusting fences now swing above gullies or are buried under dunes. When millions of cows and sheep were let loose on that fragile soil, massive erosion and the disappearance of that vast native grassland followed. It never came back. When Congress finally stepped in and passed grazing regulations in 1934, improvements followed.
Conservationists claim that cows are today contributing to the die-off of the West’s beloved aspen groves by eating tree seedlings and short-circuiting forest succession. They also spread highly flammable cheat grass in their voluminous poop. But whatever damage cows do directly to public lands pales in comparison to the way the infrastructure necessary for the cattle business has captured western water sources and de-watered western lands.
Stegner’s boomers dammed thousands of rivers and streams, while building pipelines through our national forests down to valley floors. Aqueducts, canals, and tunnels followed. The growth of many western towns is rooted in the building of a water infrastructure that has allowed us to suck the forests dry in order to irrigate the fields of alfalfa that feed those cows. And yet — hold onto your hats for this — only a miniscule 3% of the nation’s beef is raised in the West.
Yet at least 80% of the water out here goes to alfalfa and other cow-food crops. When you get those dire warnings about the Colorado River going dry and Phoenix and Vegas blowing away, remember this: because the cattlemen own the rights, cows get a lion’s share of whatever water is left after the western watersheds are baked and burned. We grow so much cow-food that we now essentially export our precious water to China in the form of alfalfa.
Beavers as Underdogs
Now maybe you’re beginning to see just why the odds are so stacked against the lowly beaver. Americans have forgotten the formative nature of our relationship with that creature. Not only did European explorers encounter a landscape that had been thoroughly carved out and watered by them, but a robust trade in beaver pelts drove settlement. Pelts that were made into warm hats for wealthy people were a kind of rodent gold and trappers couldn’t get enough of them.
Under the grinding wheel of a voracious commerce in furs, beavers were so trapped-out that they seemed to be headed for the fate of the once plentiful but now extinct passenger pigeon. This precipitous decline was reversed by one of North America’s earliest conservation campaigns.
In the 1920s, through the new medium of film the public imagination was captured by a Canadian Indian named Grey Owl. He lived on a lake with his wife, Anahareo, and raised orphaned beaver kits, explaining their ecological importance and the consequences of their loss to a public unfamiliar with the beaver’s role in keeping forests healthy. As the original beaver-believers cuddled their kits, audiences ooohed and aaahed.
Eventually Grey Owl was exposed as Archie Belaney, an Englishman posing as an Indian, but by then the message he had delivered had been translated into governance. Beaver trapping was strictly regulated across most of the West and eventually many colonies recovered. Today, there are far more beavers in North America, perhaps 10 million, than at their near-extinction moment, but their distribution on the land remains thin and uneven. Once upon a time, hundreds of millions of them helped create the American landscape. It would be fitting if, in the era of global warming, the beaver’s influence came full circle, this time as a means of making heat-stressed landscapes more resilient.
Are Beavers a Plot Against Humanity?
Most of the land in the American West is federally owned and managed, despite recent schemes by local tea-hadis to take it over and sell it to the highest bidder (or closest crony). Because federal lands are a national treasure that we own together, there are rules for the sustainable use of it and sanctions for abuse. Those rules and policies are negotiated by stakeholders and change over time. That is happening now as our forests and grasslands are baked by prolonged drought.
In 2009, a Utah Beaver Advisory Committee composed of wildlife biologists, forest rangers, ranchers, trappers, farmers, and conservationists hammered out a plan to restore healthy beaver populations to their historic range across Utah “where appropriate.” The beaver’s ecological service was finally acknowledged, but with the proviso that it be balanced against “human needs.” Getting such an endorsement for restoration and protection, however qualified, was an important first step and a catalyst for a grassroots campaign to “leave it to beavers.”
An agreement had been reached among stakeholders traditionally at odds. It was a rare feat of consensus building in a political environment where acrimony generally reigns supreme and it could have been a model for resolving other conflicts over land use and regulation. Instead, local politicians, in a panic that beavers might “steal” water, have effectively resisted it.
Joe Wheaton, who teaches watershed hydrology and restoration at Utah State University, says the science on this is clear: there is no net water loss downstream from beaver dams. If anything, they only increase a watershed’s capacity by capturing water that would otherwise be lost to floods. But the cattlemen aren’t buying it. Science, you see, is just another liberal ideology. As a Kane County commissioner put it succinctly, “Beavers are an environmentalist plot.” Think of those dead beavers along North Creek that Sage Sorenson described to me as collateral damage in the ideological civil war now raging across the region.
You Can’t Drink an F-35
The Grand Canyon Trust and a local citizens group, Boulder Community Alliance, have tried to fill the gap between the advisory group’s clear intention and the state’s hesitance to overrule obstructionist county commissioners and actually implement the plan. The Trust recruited local volunteers and trained them to assess canyon drainages using the best scientific criteria and methods available. Several streams were identified as candidates for beaver reintroduction.
Volunteers monitor and report on the few existing beaver settlements like the one being decimated in North Creek. Through education and advocacy they are building a constituency for putting beavers back on the land to do their job. They have faith that the benefits of beaver reintroduction will become obvious as re-habitation happens. When the time comes to move beavers into new streams, they will be ready.
The kind of homegrown resilience practiced by Sage Sorenson and thousands of other backyard conservationists gets a paltry piece of the taxpayer pie compared, say, to homeland security. I used to say that in the long run we’d be wiser to invest in restoring watersheds than putting a camera on every corner. As it happens, given the tenacious drought now spreading across the West and Southwest, the long run seems to be here, sooner than expected. Even the Pentagon now acknowledges that ecological catastrophe sows human turmoil and suffering that eventually blows back our way. For the cost of just one of the 2,400 F-35 fighter jets we are committed to buying at historic prices, we could restore the stressed Aquarius watershed.
But the beavers don’t care what we do. They just do their own thing. They are like their human partners: persistent and oh so local.
Saving The World, Stick by Stick
Each ecosystem has its own particular dynamic. There are endless variables to understand. That’s why conservation work is ultimately local. It focuses on improvements in this river and that forest, specific habitats and watersheds with specific conditions and a set of specific inhabitants and users.
The world we aim to save is a planet of mundane dirt, air, and water that, when woven together, somehow becomes a transcendent whole. It’s a diverse universe of living plants and critters not well-suited for one big solution. Rather, it calls forth a million small solutions that add up, like the natural world itself, to a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Or perhaps there are no parts at all, just participants.
Will introducing beavers onto wounded watersheds save the world? The answer is: yes. That and all the other acts of restoration, protection, and restraint, small and large, individual and collective, taken together over time. Sure, it’s not the same as the U.S. taxing carbon or China abandoning coal. Restoring a watershed doesn’t curb the corporations that reduce communities to commodities. But in addition to the global goals we support, our responses to ecological crisis must be grounded in the places where we live, especially in the watersheds that nourish our bodies.
Rewilding tattered land is holistic because it sees and honors connectivity. It trades hubris for humility by acknowledging complexity and limitations. Its ultimate goal is landscape health and resilience, not the well-being of a small handful of stakeholders.
If we want to construct a healthy and resilient world for ourselves and our fellow creatures, we could do worse than look to the lowly beavers for hints on how it can be done. They build a vibrant world for themselves and so many others by weaving one small limb into another, stick by stick by stick.
Chip Ward, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded HEAL Utah and wrote Canaries on the Rim and Hope’s Horizon.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me.
Copyright 2014 Chip Ward
Good, historically accurate introduction to the Israel/Palestine conflict, in the form of a short (6+ minute) video, from Jewish Voice for Peace.
Click here to read JVP Advisory Board member Aurora Levins Morales’ article “Latinos, Israel and Palestine: Understanding Anti-Semitism.”
Click here to download ICAHD”s primer, “Counter-Rhetoric: Challenging conventional wisdom & reframing the conflict” by Jeff Halper, Jimmy Johnson, and Emily Schaeffer.
Click here to download MERIP’s primer, “Palestine, Israel, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict” by Joel Beinin and Lisa Hajjar.
Click here to read Phyllis Bennis’s primer, “Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict.”
Click here to download Gush Shalom (Israeli Peace Bloc’s) “Truth Against Truth.”
Reprinted from TomDispatch.com with permission of the author
Turning 70, Paragraph by Paragraph
By Tom Engelhardt
First Paragraphs on Turning 70 in the American Century That Was
* Seventy-three years ago, on February 17, 1941, as a second devastating global war approached, Henry Luce, the publisher of Time and Life magazines, called on his countrymen to “create the first great American Century.” Luce died in 1967 at age 69. Life, the pictorial magazine no home would have been without in my 1950s childhood, ceased to exist as a weekly in 1972 and as a monthly in 2000; Time, which launched his career as a media mogul, is still wobbling on, a shadow of its former self. No one today could claim that this is Time’s century, or the American Century, or perhaps anyone else’s. Even the greatest empires now seem to have shortened lifespans. The Soviet Century, after all, barely lasted seven decades. Of course, only the rarest among us live to be 100, which means that at 70, like Time, I’m undoubtedly beginning to wobble, too.
* The other day I sat down with an old friend, a law professor who started telling me about his students. What he said aged me instantly. They’re so young, he pointed out, that their parents didn’t even come of age during the Vietnam War. For them, he added, that war is what World War I was to us. He might as well have mentioned the Mongol conquests or the War of the Roses. We’re talking about the white-haired guys riding in the open cars in Veteran’s Day parades when I was a boy. And now, it seems, I’m them.
* In March 1976, accompanied by two friends, my wife and I got married at City Hall in San Francisco, and then adjourned to a Chinese restaurant for a dim sum lunch. If, while I was settling our bill of perhaps $30, you had told me that, almost half a century in the future, marriage would be an annual $40 billion dollar business, that official couplings would be preceded by elaborate bachelor and bachelorette parties, and that there would be such a thing as destination weddings, I would have assumed you were clueless about the future. On that score at least, the nature of the world to come was self-evident and elaborate weddings of any sort weren’t going to be part of it.
* From the time I was 20 until I was 65, I was always 40 years old. Now, I feel my age. Still, my life at 70 is a luxury. Across the planet, from Afghanistan to Central America, and in the poverty zones of this country, young people regularly stare death in the face at an age when, so many decades ago, I was wondering whether my life would ever begin. That’s a crime against humanity. So consider me lucky (and privileged) to be seven decades in and only now thinking about my death.
* Recently, I had the urge to tell my son something about my mother, who died before he was born. From my closet, I retrieved an attaché case of my father’s in which I keep various family mementos. Rummaging around in one of its pockets, I stumbled upon two letters my mother wrote him while he was at war. (We’re talking about World War II, that ancient conflict of the history books.) Almost four decades after her death, all I had to do was see my mother’s handwriting on the envelope — “Major C. L. Engelhardt, 1st Air Commando Force, A.P.O. 433, Postmaster, New York 17, N.Y.” — to experience such an upwelling of emotion I could barely contain my tears. So many years later, her handwriting and my father’s remain etched into my consciousness. I don’t doubt I could recognize them amid any other set of scribblings on Earth. What fingerprints were to law enforcement then, handwriting was to family memories. And that started me wondering: years from now, in an electronic world in which no one is likely to think about picking up a pen to write anyone else, what will those “fingerprints” be?
* There are so many futures and so few of them happen. On the night of October 22, 1962, a college freshman, I listened to John F. Kennedy address the American people and tell us that the Russians were building “a series of offensive missile sites” on the island of Cuba and that “the purposes of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere.” In other words, the president of the United States was telling us that we might be at the edge of the sort of world-ending, monster-mutating nuclear war that, from Godzillato Them, had run riot in the popular culture (and the nightmares) of my childhood. At that moment, I looked directly into the future — and there was none. We were, I believed, toast. My family, my friends, all of us, from Hudson Bay, Canada, to Lima, Peru, as the president put it. Yet here I am 52 years later. As with so many futures we imagine, somehow it didn’t happen and so many years after I’m still wondering when I’ll be toast.
* If, on that same night, you had returned from the future to tell me (or other Americans) that, nearly half a century hence, the Soviet Union would barely be a memory, that there would be no other great power challenging the United States for supremacy, and that its only serious enemies would be scattered bands of Islamic extremists, largely in countries no American of that era had even heard of, my sense of wonder would have been indescribable. And I don’t doubt that the godlier among us would have fallen to their knees and given thanks for our deliverance. It would have gone without saying that, in such a future, the U.S. stood triumphant, the American Century guaranteed to stretch into endless centuries to come.
* If, on September 10, 2001, I had peered into the future (as I undoubtedly did not), whatever world I might have imagined would surely not have included: the 9/11 attacks; or those towerscollapsing apocalyptically; or that “generational” struggle launched almost instantly by the Bush administration that some neocons wanted to call “World War IV” (the Cold War being World War III), aka the Global War on Terror; or a “kill list” and drone assassination campaign run proudly out of the White House that would kill thousands in the tribal backlands of the planet; or the pouring of funds into the national security state at levels that would put the Cold War to shame; or thepromotion of torture as a necessary part of the American way of life; or the creation of an offshore prison system where anything went; or the launching of a global kidnapping campaign; or our second Afghan War, this time lasting at least 13 years; or a full-scale invasion, garrisoning, and occupation of Iraq lasting eight years; or the utterly improbable possibility that, from all of this, Washington would win nothing whatsoever. Nor, on that September day, still an editor in book publishing, barely online, and reading almost everything on the page, could I have imagined that, at age 70, I would be running a website called TomDispatch, 24/7, driven by the terrible news that would, before that day, have amazed me.
* Once upon a time, if you saw someone talking to himself or herself while walking down the street, you knew you were in the presence of mental illness. Now, you know that you’re catching a snippet of a mobile or smartphone conversation by someone connected eternally to everyone he or she knows and everything happening online every minute of the day. Not so long ago, this was material for some far-fetched sci-fi novel, not for life.
* If, on September 10, 2001, you had told me that the very way we are connected to each other electronically would encourage the evolution of an American surveillance state of breathtaking proportions and a corporate surveillance sphere of similar proportions, that both would have dreams of collecting, storing, and using the electronic communications of everybody on the planet, and that, in such a brief space of time, both would come remarkably close to succeeding, I wouldn’t have believed you. Nor would I have been able to absorb the fact that, in doing so, the U.S. national security state would outpace the “bad guys” of the totalitarian regimes of the previous century in the ambitiousness of its surveillance dreams. I would have thought such a development conceptually inconceivable for this country. And in that, touchingly, I would still be reflecting something of the America I grew up believing in.
* In my youth, I lived in the future. Riveted by the space operas of Isaac Asimov, among others, I grew up as a space nerd, dreaming of American glory and the colonization of distant planetary systems. At the same time, without any sense of contradiction, I inhabited future American worlds of wholesale destruction dotted with survivalist colonies in post-apocalyptic landscapes littered with mutants of every sort.
* I‘m no neuroscientist, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that we, as a species, are hardwired for prediction. Preparing eternally for whatever danger might be just around the corner seems like such a useful trait, the sort of thing that keeps a species on its toes (once it has them). As far as I can tell, the brain just can’t help itself. The only problem is that we’re terrible at it. The famed fog of war is nothing compared to the fog of the future or, as I’ve often said, I’d be regularly riding myjetpack in traffic through the spired city of New York, as I was promised in my childhood. Our urge to predict the future is unsurpassed. Our ability to see it as it will be: next to nil.
Middle Paragraphs for a Missing American Century
* It’s been almost 13 years since the 9/11 attacks and there’s still no learning curve in Washington. Just about every step of the way in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s only gotten worse. Yet from that history, from repeated military interventions, surges, and Hail Marys in each of those countries, Washington has learned…? Yep, you guessed it: that, in a crisis, it’s up to us to plunge in again, as in Iraq today where the Obama administration is sending back troops, drones, and helicopters, plotting to support certain government figures, deep-six others, and somehow fragment various Sunni insurgent and extremist groups. And don’t forget the endless advice administration officials have on offer, the bureaucratic assessments of the situation they continue to generate, and theweaponry they are eager to dispatch to a thoroughly destabilized land — even as they rush to “broker” a destabilizing Afghan election, a situation in which the long-term results once again aren’t likely to be positive for Washington. Consider this curious conundrum: the future is largely a mystery, except when it comes to Washington’s actions and their predictably dismal outcomes.
* Doesn’t it amaze you how little Washington gets it? Fierce as the internal disagreements in that capital city may be, seldom has a ruling group collectively been quite so incapable of putting itself in the shoes of anyone else or so tone deaf when it comes to the effects of its own acts. Take Germany where, starting with Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations, the public response to reports of massive American surveillance of the communications of ordinary Germans and their leaderswasn’t exactly greeted with enthusiasm. Now it turns out that the NSA wasn’t the only U.S. “intelligence” agency at work in that country. The CIA and possibly other agencies were recruiting spies inside German intelligence and its defense ministry. Polls show that public opinion there has been turning against the U.S. in striking ways, but Washington just can’t take it in. A little noted truth of this level of spying and surveillance is: it’s addictive. Washington can’t imagine not doing it, no matter the damage. If you keep an eye on this situation, you’ll see how the U.S. national security system has become a self-inflicted-wound machine.
* Here’s a question for our American moment: Why, in its foreign policy, can’t the Obama administration get a break? You’d think that, just by pure, dumb luck, there would be a few small victories somewhere for the greatest power on the planet, but no such thing. So for the post-American Century news jockeys among you, here’s a tip: to follow the waning fortunes of that century in real time, just keep an eye on Secretary of State John Kerry’s endless travels. He’s the Jonah of the Obama administration. Wherever he goes, disaster, large or small, trails behind him, even when, as in Afghanistan recently, his intervention is initially billed as some sort of modest triumph. Consider him the waning American Century personified.
* Think of the drone as a barometer of the American Century in decline. It’s the latest “perfect weapon” to arrive on the global scene with five-star reviews and promises of victory. Like the A-bomb before it, by the time its claims proved false advertising, it was already lodged deeply in our world and replicating. The drone is the John Kerry of advanced weaponry. Everywhere it goes, it brings a kind of robotic precision to killing, the problem being that its distant human trigger fingers rely on the usual improbable information about what’s actually on the ground to be killed. This means that the innocent are dying along with all those proclaimed “militants,” “high-value targets,” and al-Qaeda(-ish) leaders and “lieutenants.” Wherever the drone goes, it has been the equivalent of a recruiting poster for Islamic militants and terror groups. It brings instability and disaster in its wake. It constantly kills bad guys — and constantly creates more of them. And even as thenegative reports about it come in, an addicted Washington can’t stop using it.
Last Paragraphs on Turning 70 (a Requiem for the American Century)
* The true legacy of the foreshortened American Century, those years when Washington as top dog actually organized much of the world, may prove apocalyptic. Nuclear weapons ushered that century in with the news that humanity could now annihilate itself. Global warming is ushering it out with the news that nature may instead be the weapon of choice. In 1990, when the Soviet system collapsed and disappeared, along with its sclerotic state-run economy, capitalism and liberal democracy were hailed in a triumphalist fashion and the moment proclaimed “the end of history.” In the 1990s, that seemed like a flattering description. Now, with 1% elections, an unmitigated drive for profits amid growing inequality, and constant global temperature records, the end of history might turn out to have a grimmer meaning.
* Global warming (like nuclear war and nuclear winter) is history’s deal-breaker. Otherwise, the worst humanity can do, it’s done in some fashion before. Empires rise and fall. They always have. People are desperately oppressed. It’s an old story. Humans bravely protest the conditions of their lives. Rebellions and revolutions follow and the unexpected or disappointing is often the result. You know the tale. Hope and despair, the worst and the best — it’s us. But global warming, the potential destruction of the habitat that’s made everything possible for us, that’s something new under the sun. Yes, it’s happened before, thanks to natural causes ranging from vast volcanic eruptions to plummeting asteroids, but there’s something unique about us torpedoing our own environment. This, above all, looks to be the event the American Century has overseen and that thedrive for fossil-fuel profits has made a reality. Don’t fool yourself, though; we’re not destroying the planet. Give it 10 million years and it’ll regenerate just fine. But us? Honestly, who knows what we can pull out of a hat on this score.
* Let me put my cards on the table. I’m the guy who started two of his book titles with the phrases “the end of” and “the last days of,” so think of me as apocalyptic by nature. I don’t believe in God or gods, or for that matter an afterlife. In all these years, I’ve never discovered a spiritual bone in my body. Still, I do care in some way that I can’t begin to understand what happens to us after I’m dead, what in particular happens to my children and my grandson, and his children and theirs, too. Go figure.
* My father’s closest friend, the last person of his generation who knew him intimately, died recently at 99. To my regret, I was no longer in touch. It nonetheless felt like an archive closing. The fog of the past now envelops much of his life. There is nobody left to tell me what I don’t know about all those years before my birth. Not a soul. And yet I can at least recognize some of the people in his old photos and tell stories about them. My mother’s childhood album is another matter. Her brother aside, there’s no one I recognize, not a single soul, or a single story I can tell. It’s all fog. We don’t like to think of ourselves that way; we don’t like to imagine that we, in the present, will disappear into that fog with all our stories, all our experiences, all our memories.
* Here’s a question that, in a globally warming world, comes to mind: Are we a failed experiment? I know I’m not the first to ask, and to answer I’d have to be capable of peering into a future that I can’t see. So all I can say on turning 70 is: Who wouldn’t want to stick around and find out?
* Here’s the upbeat takeaway from this requiem for a foreshortened American Century: history is undoubtedly filled with seers, Cassandras, and gurus of every sort exactly because the future is such a mystery to us. Mystery, however, means surprise, which is an eternal part of every tomorrow. And surprise means, even under the worst conditions, a kind of hope. Who knows just what July 20, 2015, or 2025, or 2035 will usher on stage? And who knows when I won’t be there to find out. Not I.
* By the way, I have the urge to offer you five predictions about the world of 2050, but what’s the point? I’d just have to advise you to ignore them all.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, to be published in September, is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single Superpower World (Haymarket Books).
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me.
Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt
Reprinted from Foreign Policy in Focus under a Creative Commons Licence
Israel believes it can bomb Gazans into changing their interests. How long will Obama support this delusion?
Israel’s favorite metaphor for its periodic strikes on Gaza—”mowing the lawn”—suggests violence that is routine, indiscriminate, and risk-free. (Photo: United Nations Photo / Flickr)
The Palestinians of Gaza are guilty of that new post-Cold War misdemeanor: voting while Muslim. The punishment for this crime has been eight years of economic hardship, international isolation, and periodic Israeli bombardments.
Like the Algerians in 1990 and the Egyptians in 2012, Gazans went to the polls in 2006 and voted for the wrong party. Rather than supporting the secular choice, they cast their ballots for Hamas. Not all Palestinians are Muslim (6 percent or so are Christian). But by opting for the Islamic Resistance Movement—Hamas, for short—Gazans had effectively nullified their own ballots.
It didn’t matter that the EU and other institutions declared the elections free and fair. The results were what mattered, and Israel’s judgment carried the day. Even though the newly elected government extended an olive branch to both Israel and the United States, the Israeli government didn’t consider Hamas a legitimate political actor.
“Israel stated that Hamas were terrorists and Western leaders did not challenge this line,” writes Cata Charrett in an excellent piece at Mondoweiss. “On the contrary, they refused to meet diplomatically with Hamas leaders, they cut off all possible financing to the newly elected government, and they supported Israel’s complete sanction and seizure of Gazan territory.” A direct peace overture to President George W. Bush offering a long-term truce went unanswered.
Voting while Christian or voting while Jewish has not led to similar results. Christian Democrats have won elections in Europe without generating boycotts or warnings about an imminent descent into clerical autocracy. The ultra-religious Shas party has participated in ruling coalitions in Israel without incurring the wrath of the international community.
But Hamas, its critics insist, is different because it is fundamentally anti-democratic. Ditto the Muslim Brotherhood. Even Turkey’s Justice and Development Party and Tunisia’s Ennahda are suspect, according to those who hold to the dictum that Islam and democracy are fundamentally incompatible.
The fear of Islamic fundamentalism taking over the Middle East through the ballot box began in 1990 when the Islamic Salvation Front won 55 percent of the vote in local elections in Algeria. The following year, with the Front poised to win the national elections, the Algerian government banned the party and jailed its leaders, precipitating a civil war that left more than 100,000 people dead. At the time, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Edward Djerejian declared that the U.S. government opposed what it called “one person, one vote, one time.” Washington worried about the possibility that Islamist parties would use democratic means to rise to power and then kick away the democratic ladder beneath them.
This prospective outcome prompted the United States to continue supporting its traditionally authoritarian allies in the region. The Arab Spring offered some hope that the United States had changed this policy, with the Obama administration withdrawing its support, albeit reluctantly, from Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak just before he stepped down in early 2011. But the older preference for status-quo strongmen has reasserted itself, as Washington has looked the other way at Nouri al-Maliki’s obvious faults in Iraq, continued to support the royal elite in Bahrain, and quickly moved to embrace coup leader Abdel Fattah Al Sisi in Egypt.
Let me be clear: I wouldn’t vote for Hamas. And I would rather that the party clearly recognized the right of Israel to exist (just as I would prefer the Republican Party to recognize the right of gay marriage to exist).
But my preferences are beside the point. Hamas represents a large constituency. Many Gazans voted for the party because they were disgusted with the corruption of the secular Fatah movement and were impressed with the social service systemHamas had created. Like other resistance movements—the African National Congress, the Irish Republican Army—Hamas was on its way toward becoming a political party. If such a party takes power only to behave undemocratically—as the Muslim Brotherhood arguably did in Egypt—that’s a different question. But if you claim to respect democracy, you must recognize the results of free and fair elections. And if you want a party to change its position—and it’s willing to talk—you have to sit down at the table and negotiate with it.
But Israel—and by extension the United States—didn’t choose this option. As a result, a border conflict has raged ever since, with two particularly severe flare-ups in 2008-9 and 2012.
Last month, Hamas and Fatah set aside their own substantial grievances and forgeda unity agreement on administering both Gaza and the West Bank. Here was a perfect opportunity for Israel to move forward with a new deal. In reality, however, this was a signal for Israel to go on the offensive. It just needed an excuse. When Gazan militants linked to the Islamic State (formerly ISIS), but not Hamas, kidnapped and killed three Israeli teenagers, Netanyahu had his excuse.
Israel’s latest bombing campaign has already left nearly 200 Palestinians dead. Roughly 70 percent are civilians; more than 30 of the victims are children. Israeli bombs have fallen on houses, apartment buildings, a disability center, a café. Foreigners have even volunteered to be human shields at a hospital that has already been struck twice. The Israeli Defense Forces maintain that they warn residents of a building beforehand of a strike, but this practice is inconsistent.
Some Israelis refer to their periodic shelling of the Palestinian territory as “mowing the lawn.” It is a disturbing metaphor because it is so indiscriminate. They don’t talk about “weeding the garden” or “pruning the trees.” A lawnmower cuts down everything in its path—grass, weeds, wildflowers. Also, a lawn needs constant mowing, suggesting that Israel plans to conduct bombing campaigns on a seasonal basis.
But Netanyahu may well see an opportunity to eliminate Hamas altogether. The organization no longer can count on support from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Syria’s Assad. Ties with Iran were also strained by the support Hamas provided to rebels fighting in Syria. Nor can the territory rely on supplies coming in through tunnels from the Sinai. Those to the right of Netanyahu—unbelievably, the Israeli political spectrum has such ultraviolent frequencies—are reportedly pressing the government to launch a ground offensive. Mowing the lawn would then quickly become a scorched earth policy.
It’s not a fair fight. The casualty rates are grotesquely asymmetrical. Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system has reduced the number of casualties on the Israeli side to a single death so far. Gazans have fled by the thousands to the southern part of the territory while Israelis have set up plastic chairs on a mountain overlook to watch the bombs explode in Gaza as if they were fireworks.
In this way, Israel has entered the same murky moral territory that the United States entered during the conflicts in Kosovo and Libya. It is currently waging effectively risk-free warfare. Governments that don’t have to deal with public response to the deaths of either soldiers or civilians are freed of the conventional political calculus involved in prosecuting a war. Such a government may also be less willing to compromise, for there is no significant counterweight to military action, at least when it comes to aerial attacks.
So far, however, it’s been Hamas that has rejected the latest ceasefire, brokered by Egypt. Hamas has its reasons. It wants the release of its members who were rearrested in June after being set free in a deal in 2011. And it wants an end to the blockade that has turned Gaza into a virtual prison for its inhabitants. But Egypt’s deal didn’t reflect any of these concerns.
The major players continue to violate the most fundamental rule of conflict resolution: taking into consideration the underlying interests of all parties to the conflict. The problem goes back at least to 2006, when Hamas won an election that Israel and the United States failed to recognize.
Netanyahu still believes that he can bomb Gazans into changing their underlying interests. The real question is: how long will the Obama administration persist in supporting this delusion?
Reprinted from TomDispatch.com with permission of the author.
By Tom Engelhardt
The Age of Impunity
For America’s national security state, this is the age of impunity. Nothing it does — torture, kidnapping, assassination, illegal surveillance, you name it — will ever be brought to court. For none of its beyond-the-boundaries acts will anyone be held accountable. The only crimes that can now be committed in official Washington are by those foolish enough to believe that a government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this earth. I’m speaking of the various whistleblowers and leakers who have had an urge to let Americans know what deeds and misdeeds their government is committing in their name but without their knowledge. They continue to pay a price in accountability for their acts that should, by comparison, stun us all.
As June ended, the New York Times front-paged an account of an act of corporate impunity that may, however, be unique in the post-9/11 era (though potentially a harbinger of things to come). In 2007, as journalist James Risen tells it, Daniel Carroll, the top manager in Iraq for the rent-a-gun company Blackwater, one of the warrior corporations that accompanied the U.S. military to war in the twenty-first century, threatened Jean Richter, a government investigator sent to Baghdad to look into accounts of corporate wrongdoing.
Here, according to Risen, is Richter’s version of what happened when he, another government investigator, and Carroll met to discuss Blackwater’s potential misdeeds in that war zone:
“Mr. Carroll said ‘that he could kill me at that very moment and no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq,’ Mr. Richter wrote in a memo to senior State Department officials in Washington. He noted that Mr. Carroll had formerly served with Navy SEAL Team 6, an elite unit. ‘Mr. Carroll’s statement was made in a low, even tone of voice, his head was slightly lowered; his eyes were fixed on mine,’ Mr. Richter stated in his memo. ‘I took Mr. Carroll’s threat seriously. We were in a combat zone where things can happen quite unexpectedly, especially when issues involve potentially negative impacts on a lucrative security contract.’”
When officials at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the largest in the world, heard what had happened, they acted promptly. They sided with the Blackwater manager, ordering Richter and the investigator who witnessed the scene out of the country (with their inquiry incomplete). And though a death threat against an American official might, under other circumstances, have led a CIA team or a set of special ops guys to snatch the culprit off the streets of Baghdad, deposit him on a Navy ship for interrogation, and then leave him idling in Guantanamo or in jail in the United States awaiting trial, in this case no further action was taken.
Power Centers But No Power to Act
Think of the response of those embassy officials as a get-out-of-jail-free pass in honor of a new age. For the various rent-a-gun companies, construction and supply outfits, and weapons makers that have been the beneficiaries of the wholesale privatization of American war since 9/11, impunity has become the new reality. Pull back the lens further and the same might be said more generally about America’s corporate sector and its financial outfits. There was, after all, no accountability for the economic meltdown of 2007-2008. Not a single significant figure went to jail for bringing the American economy to its knees. (And many such figures made out like proverbial bandits in the government bailout and revival of their businesses that followed.)
Meanwhile, in these years, the corporation itself was let loose to run riot. Long a “person” in the legal world, it became ever more person-like, benefitting from a series of Supreme Court decisions that hobbled unions and ordinary Americans even as it gave the corporation ever more of the rights and attributes of a citizen on the loose. Post-9/11, the corporate world gained freedom of expression, the freedom of the purse, as well as the various freedoms that staggering inequality and hoards of money offer. Corporate entities gained, among other things, the right to flood the political system with money, and most recently, at least in a modest way, freedom of religion.
In other words, two great power centers have been engorging themselves in twenty-first-century America: there was an ever-expanding national security state, ever less accountable to anyone, ever less overseen by anyone, ever more deeply enveloped in secrecy, ever more able to see others and less transparent itself, ever more empowered by a secret court system and a body of secret law whose judgments no one else could be privy to; and there was an increasingly militarized corporate state, ever less accountable to anyone, ever less overseen by outside forces, ever more sure that the law was its possession. These two power centers are now triumphant in our world. They command the landscape against what may be less effective opposition than at any moment in our history.
In both cases, no matter how you tote it up, it’s been an era of triumphalism. Measure it any way you want: by the rising Dow Jones Industrial Average or the expanding low-wage economy, by the power of “dark money” to determine American politics in 1% elections or the rising wages of CEOs and the stagnating wages of their workers, by the power of billionaires and the growth of poverty, by the penumbra of secrecy and classification spreading across government operations and the lessening ability of the citizen to know what’s going on, or by the growing power of both the national security state and the corporation to turn your life into an open book. Look anywhere and some version of the same story presents itself — of ascendant power in the boardrooms and the backrooms, and of a sense of impunity that accompanies it.
Whether you’re considering the power of the national security state or the corporate sector, their moment is now. And what a moment it is — for them. Their success seems almost complete. And yet that only begins to tell the strange tale of our American times, because if that power is ascendant, it seems incapable of being translated into classic American power. The more successful those two sectors become, the less the U.S. seems capable of wielding its power effectively in any traditional sense, domestically or abroad.
Anyone can feel it, hence the recent Pew Research Center poll indicating a striking diminution in recent years of Americans who think the U.S. is exceptional, the greatest of all nations. By 2011, only 38% of Americans thought that; today, the figure has dropped to 28%, and — a harbinger of future American attitudes — just 15% among 18-to-29-year-olds. And no wonder. By many measures the U.S. may remain the wealthiest, most powerful nation on the planet, but in recent years its ability to accomplish anything, no less achieve national or imperial success, has shrunk drastically.
The power centers remain, but in some still-hard-to-grasp way, the power to accomplish anything seems to be draining from a country that was once the great can-do nation on the planet. On this, the record is both dismal and clear. To say that the American political system is in a kind of gridlock or paralysis from which — given electoral prospects in 2014 and 2016 — there can be no escape is to say the obvious. It’s a commonplace of news reports to suggest, for example, that in this midterm election year Congress and the president will be capable of accomplishing nothing together (except perhaps avoiding another actual government shutdown). Nada, zip, zero.
The president acts in relatively minimalist ways by executive order, Congress threatens to sue over his use of those orders, and (as novelist Kurt Vonnegut would once have said) so it goes. In the meantime, Congress has proven itself unable to act even when it comes to what once would have been the no-brainers of American life. It has, for instance, been struggling simply to fund a highway bill that would allow for ordinary repair work on the nation’s system of roads, even though the fund for such work is running dry and jobs will be lost.
This sort of thing is but a symptom in a country of immense wealth whose infrastructure is crumbling and which lacks a single mile of high-speed rail. In all of this, in the rise of poverty and a minimum-wage economy, in a loss — particularly for minorities — of the wealth that went with home ownership, what can be seen is the untracked rise of a Third World country inside a First World one, a powerless America inside the putative global superpower.
An Exceptional Kind of Decline
And speaking of the “sole superpower,” it remains true that no combination of other militaries can compare with the U.S. military or the moneys the country continues to put into it and into the research and development of weaponry of the most futuristic sort. The U.S. national security budget remains a Ripley’s-Believe-It-Or-Not-style infusion of tax dollars into the national security state, something no other combination of major countries comes close to matching.
In addition, the U.S. still maintains hundreds of military bases and outposts across the planet (including, in recent years, ever more bases for our latest techno-wonder weapon, the drone). In 2014, it still garrisons the planet in a way that no other imperial power has ever done. In fact, it continues to sport all the trappings of a great empire, with an army impressive enough that our last two presidents have regularly resorted to one unembarrassed image to describe it: “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known.”
And yet, recent history is clear: that military has proven incapable of winning its wars against minor (and minority) insurgencies globally, just as Washington, for all its firepower, military and economic, has had a remarkably difficult time imposing its desires just about anywhere on the planet. Though it may still look like a superpower and though the power of its national security state may still be growing, Washington seems to have lost the ability to translate that power into anything resembling success.
Today, the U.S. looks less like a functioning and effective empire than an imperial basket case, unable to bring its massive power to bear effectively from Germany to Syria, Iraq to Afghanistan, Libya to the South China Sea, the Crimea to Africa. And stranger yet, this remains true even though it has no imperial competitors to challenge it. Russia is a rickety energy state, capable of achieving its version of imperial success only along its own borders, and China, clearly the rising economic power on the planet, though flexing its military muscles locally in disputed oil-rich waters, visibly has no wish to challenge the U.S. military anywhere far from home.
All in all, the situation is puzzling indeed. Despite much talk about the rise of a multi-polar world, this still remains in many ways a unipolar one, which perhaps means that the wounds Washington has suffered on numerous fronts in these last years are self-inflicted.
Just what kind of decline this represents remains to be seen. What does seem clearer today is that the rise of the national security state and the triumphalism of the corporate sector (along with the much publicized growth of great wealth and striking inequality in the country) has been accompanied by a decided diminution in the power of the government to function domestically and of the imperial state to impose its will anywhere on Earth.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me.
Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt
Reprinted from truthout (15 January 2013) with permission of the author
By Thom Hartmann
The real reason the Second Amendment was ratified, and why it says “State” instead of “Country” (the Framers knew the difference – see the 10th Amendment), was to preserve the slave patrol militias in the southern states, which was necessary to get Virginia’s vote. Founders Patrick Henry, George Mason, and James Madison were totally clear on that . . . and we all should be too.
In the beginning, there were the militias. In the South, they were also called the “slave patrols,” and they were regulated by the states.
In Georgia, for example, a generation before the American Revolution, laws were passed in 1755 and 1757 that required all plantation owners or their male white employees to be members of the Georgia Militia, and for those armed militia members to make monthly inspections of the quarters of all slaves in the state. The law defined which counties had which armed militias and even required armed militia members to keep a keen eye out for slaves who may be planning uprisings.
As Dr. Carl T. Bogus wrote for the University of California Law Review in 1998, “The Georgia statutes required patrols, under the direction of commissioned militia officers, to examine every plantation each month and authorized them to search ‘all Negro Houses for offensive Weapons and Ammunition’ and to apprehend and give twenty lashes to any slave found outside plantation grounds.”
It’s the answer to the question raised by the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained when he asks, “Why don’t they just rise up and kill the whites?” If the movie were real, it would have been a purely rhetorical question, because every southerner of the era knew the simple answer: Well regulated militias kept the slaves in chains.
Sally E. Haden, in her book Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas, notes that, “Although eligibility for the Militia seemed all-encompassing, not every middle-aged white male Virginian or Carolinian became a slave patroller.” There were exemptions so “men in critical professions” like judges, legislators and students could stay at their work. Generally, though, she documents how most southern men between ages 18 and 45 – including physicians and ministers – had to serve on slave patrol in the militia at one time or another in their lives.
And slave rebellions were keeping the slave patrols busy.
By the time the Constitution was ratified, hundreds of substantial slave uprisings had occurred across the South. Blacks outnumbered whites in large areas, and the state militias were used to both prevent and to put down slave uprisings. As Dr. Bogus points out, slavery can only exist in the context of a police state, and the enforcement of that police state was the explicit job of the militias.
If the anti-slavery folks in the North had figured out a way to disband – or even move out of the state – those southern militias, the police state of the South would collapse. And, similarly, if the North were to invite into military service the slaves of the South, then they could be emancipated, which would collapse the institution of slavery, and the southern economic and social systems, altogether.
These two possibilities worried southerners like James Monroe, George Mason (who owned over 300 slaves) and the southern Christian evangelical, Patrick Henry (who opposed slavery on principle, but also opposed freeing slaves).
Their main concern was that Article 1, Section 8 of the newly-proposed Constitution, which gave the federal government the power to raise and supervise a militia, could also allow that federal militia to subsume their state militias and change them from slavery-enforcing institutions into something that could even, one day, free the slaves.
This was not an imagined threat. Famously, 12 years earlier, during the lead-up to the Revolutionary War, Lord Dunsmore offered freedom to slaves who could escape and join his forces. “Liberty to Slaves” was stitched onto their jacket pocket flaps. During the War, British General Henry Clinton extended the practice in 1779. And numerous freed slaves served in General Washington’s army.
Thus, southern legislators and plantation owners lived not just in fear of their own slaves rebelling, but also in fear that their slaves could be emancipated through military service.
At the ratifying convention in Virginia in 1788, Henry laid it out:
“Let me here call your attention to that part [Article 1, Section 8 of the proposed Constitution] which gives the Congress power to provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States. . . .
“By this, sir, you see that their control over our last and best defence is unlimited. If they neglect or refuse to discipline or arm our militia, they will be useless: the states can do neither . . . this power being exclusively given to Congress. The power of appointing officers over men not disciplined or armed is ridiculous; so that this pretended little remains of power left to the states may, at the pleasure of Congress, be rendered nugatory.”
George Mason expressed a similar fear:
“The militia may be here destroyed by that method which has been practised in other parts of the world before; that is, by rendering them useless, by disarming them. Under various pretences, Congress may neglect to provide for arming and disciplining the militia; and the state governments cannot do it, for Congress has an exclusive right to arm them [under this proposed Constitution] . . . “
Henry then bluntly laid it out:
“If the country be invaded, a state may go to war, but cannot suppress [slave] insurrections [under this new Constitution]. If there should happen an insurrection of slaves, the country cannot be said to be invaded. They cannot, therefore, suppress it without the interposition of Congress . . . . Congress, and Congress only [under this new Constitution], can call forth the militia.”
And why was that such a concern for Patrick Henry?
“In this state,” he said, “there are two hundred and thirty-six thousand blacks, and there are many in several other states. But there are few or none in the Northern States. . . . May Congress not say, that every black man must fight? Did we not see a little of this last war? We were not so hard pushed as to make emancipation general; but acts of Assembly passed that every slave who would go to the army should be free.”
Patrick Henry was also convinced that the power over the various state militias given the federal government in the new Constitution could be used to strip the slave states of their slave-patrol militias. He knew the majority attitude in the North opposed slavery, and he worried they’d use the Constitution to free the South’s slaves (a process then called “Manumission”).
The abolitionists would, he was certain, use that power (and, ironically, this is pretty much what Abraham Lincoln ended up doing):
“[T]hey will search that paper [the Constitution], and see if they have power of manumission,” said Henry. “And have they not, sir? Have they not power to provide for the general defence and welfare? May they not think that these call for the abolition of slavery? May they not pronounce all slaves free, and will they not be warranted by that power?
“This is no ambiguous implication or logical deduction. The paper speaks to the point: they have the power in clear, unequivocal terms, and will clearly and certainly exercise it.”
He added: “This is a local matter, and I can see no propriety in subjecting it to Congress.”
James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution” and a slaveholder himself, basically called Patrick Henry paranoid.
“I was struck with surprise,” Madison said, “when I heard him express himself alarmed with respect to the emancipation of slaves. . . . There is no power to warrant it, in that paper [the Constitution]. If there be, I know it not.”
But the southern fears wouldn’t go away.
Patrick Henry even argued that southerner’s “property” (slaves) would be lost under the new Constitution, and the resulting slave uprising would be less than peaceful or tranquil:
“In this situation,” Henry said to Madison, “I see a great deal of the property of the people of Virginia in jeopardy, and their peace and tranquility gone.”
So Madison, who had (at Jefferson’s insistence) already begun to prepare proposed amendments to the Constitution, changed his first draft of one that addressed the militia issue to make sure it was unambiguous that the southern states could maintain their slave patrol militias.
His first draft for what became the Second Amendment had said: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed, and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country [emphasis mine]: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person.”
But Henry, Mason and others wanted southern states to preserve their slave-patrol militias independent of the federal government. So Madison changed the word “country” to the word “state,” and redrafted the Second Amendment into today’s form:
“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State[emphasis mine], the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Little did Madison realize that one day in the future weapons-manufacturing corporations, newly defined as “persons” by a Supreme Court some have called dysfunctional, would use his slave patrol militia amendment to protect their “right” to manufacture and sell assault weapons used to murder schoolchildren.
Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission of the author.
Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.com
The Militarized Realities of Fortress America
By William J. Astore
I spent four college years in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and then served 20 years in the U.S. Air Force. In the military, especially in basic training, you have no privacy. The government owns you. You’re “government issue,” just another G.I., a number on a dogtag that has your blood type and religion in case you need a transfusion or last rites. You get used to it. That sacrifice of individual privacy and personal autonomy is the price you pay for joining the military. Heck, I got a good career and a pension out of it, so don’t cry for me, America.
But this country has changed a lot since I joined ROTC in 1981, was fingerprinted, typed for blood, and otherwise poked and prodded. (I needed a medical waiver for myopia.) Nowadays, in Fortress America, every one of us is, in some sense, government issue in a surveillance state gone mad.
Unlike the recruiting poster of old, Uncle Sam doesn’t want you anymore — he already has you. You’ve been drafted into the American national security state. That much is evident from Edward Snowden’s revelations. Your email? It can be read. Your phone calls? Metadata about them is being gathered. Your smartphone? It’s a perfect tracking device if the government needs to find you. Your computer? Hackable and trackable. Your server? It’s at their service, not yours.
Many of the college students I’ve taught recently take such a loss of privacy for granted. They have no idea what’s gone missing from their lives and so don’t value what they’ve lost or, if they fret about it at all, console themselves with magical thinking — incantations like “I’ve done nothing wrong, so I’ve got nothing to hide.” They have little sense of how capricious governments can be about the definition of “wrong.”
Consider us all recruits, more or less, in the new version of Fortress America, of an ever more militarized, securitized country. Renting a movie? Why not opt for the first Captain America and watch him vanquish the Nazis yet again, a reminder of the last war we truly won? Did you head for a baseball park on Memorial Day? What could be more American or more innocent? So I hope you paid no attention to all those camouflaged caps and uniforms your favorite players were wearing in just another of an endless stream of tributes to our troops and veterans.
Let’s hear no whining about militarized uniforms on America’s playing fields. After all, don’t you know that America’s real pastime these last years has been war and lots of it?
Be a Good Trooper
Think of the irony. The Vietnam War generated an unruly citizen’s army that reflected an unruly and increasingly rebellious citizenry. That proved more than the U.S. military and our ruling elites could take. So President Nixon ended the draftin 1973 and made America’s citizen-soldier ideal, an ideal that had persisted for two centuries, a thing of the past. The “all-volunteer military,” the professionals, were recruited or otherwise enticed to do the job for us. No muss, no fuss, and it’s been that way ever since. Plenty of war, but no need to be a “warrior,” unless you sign on the dotted line. It’s the new American way.
But it turned out that there was a fair amount of fine print in the agreement that freed Americans from those involuntary military obligations. Part of the bargain was to “support the pros” (or rather “our troops”) unstintingly and the rest involved being pacified, keeping your peace, being a happy warrior in the new national security state that, particularly in the wake of 9/11, grew to enormous proportions on the taxpayer dollar. Whether you like it or not, you’ve been drafted into that role, so join the line of recruits and take your proper place in the garrison state.
If you’re bold, gaze out across the increasingly fortified and monitored borders we share with Canada and Mexico. (Remember when you could cross those borders with no hassle, not even a passport or ID card? I do.) Watch for those drones, home from the wars and already hovering in or soon to arrive in your local skies — ostensibly to fight crime. Pay due respect to your increasingly up-armored police forces with their automatic weapons, their special SWAT teams, and their converted MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles). These vintage Iraqi Freedom vehicles are now military surplus given away or sold on the cheap to local police departments. Be careful to observe their draconian orders for prison-like “lockdowns” of your neighborhood or city, essentially temporary declarations of martial law, all for your safety and security.
Be a good trooper and do what you’re told. Stay out of public areas when you’re ordered to do so. Learn to salute smartly. (It’s one of the first lessons I was taught as a military recruit.) No, not that middle-finger salute, you aging hippie. Render a proper one to those in authority. You had best learn how.
Or perhaps you don’t even have to, since so much that we now do automatically is structured to render that salute for us. Repeated singings of “God Bless America” at sporting events. Repeated viewings of movies that glorify the military. (Special Operations forces are a hot topic in American multiplexes these days from Act of Valor to Lone Survivor.) Why not answer the call of duty by playing militarized video games like Call of Duty? Indeed, when you do think of war, be sure to treat it as a sport, a movie, a game.
Surging in America
I’ve been out of the military for nearly a decade, and yet I feel more militarized today than when I wore a uniform. That feeling first came over me in 2007, during what was called the “Iraqi surge” — the sending of another 30,000 U.S. troops into the quagmire that was our occupation of that country. It prompted my first articlefor TomDispatch. I was appalled by the way our civilian commander-in-chief, George W. Bush, hid behind the beribboned chest of his appointed surge commander, General David Petraeus, to justify his administration’s devolving war of choice in Iraq. It seemed like the eerie visual equivalent of turning traditional American military-civilian relationships upside down, of a president who had gone over to the military. And it worked. A cowed Congress meekly submitted to “King David” Petraeus and rushed to cheer his testimony in support of further American escalation in Iraq.
Since then, it’s become a sartorial necessity for our presidents to don military flight jackets whenever they address our “warfighters” as a sign both of their “support” and of the militarization of the imperial presidency. (For comparison, try to imagine Matthew Brady taking a photo of “honest Abe” in the Civil War equivalent of a flight jacket!) It is now de rigueur for presidents to praise American troops as “the finest military in world history” or, as President Obama typically said to NBC’s Brian Williams in an interview from Normandy last week, “the greatest military in the world.” Even more hyperbolically, these same troops are celebrated across the country in the most vocal way possible as hardened “warriors” andbenevolent freedom-bringers, simultaneously the goodest and the baddest of anyone on the planet — and all without including any of the ugly, as in the ugliness of war and killing. Perhaps that explains why I’ve seen military recruitment vans (sporting video game consoles) at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Given that military service is so beneficent, why not get the country’s 12-year-old prospects hopped up on the prospect of joining the ranks?
Too few Americans see any problems in any of this, which shouldn’t surprise us. After all, they’re already recruits themselves. And if the prospect of all this does appall you, you can’t even burn your draft card in protest, so better to salute smartly and obey. A good conduct medal will undoubtedly be coming your way soon.
It wasn’t always so. I remember walking the streets of Worcester, Massachusetts, in my freshly pressed ROTC uniform in 1981. It was just six years after the Vietnam War ended in defeat and antiwar movies like Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now were still fresh in people’s minds. (First Blood and the Rambo “stab-in-the-back” myth wouldn’t come along for another year.) I was aware of people looking at me not with hostility, but with a certain indifference mixed occasionally with barely disguised disdain. It bothered me slightly, but even then I knew that a healthy distrust of large standing militaries was in the American grain.
No longer. Today, service members, when appearing in uniform, are universally applauded and repetitiously lauded as heroes.
I’m not saying we should treat our troops with disdain, but as our history has shown us, genuflecting before them is not a healthy sign of respect. Consider it a sign as well that we really are all government issue now.
Shedding a Militarized Mindset
If you think that’s an exaggeration, consider an old military officer’s manual I still have in my possession. It’s vintage 1950, approved by that great American, General George C. Marshall, Jr., the man most responsible for our country’s victory in World War II. It began with this reminder to the newly commissioned officer: “[O]n becoming an officer a man does not renounce any part of his fundamental character as an American citizen. He has simply signed on for the post-graduate course where one learns how to exercise authority in accordance with the spirit of liberty.” That may not be an easy thing to do, but the manual’s aim was to highlight the salutary tension between military authority and personal liberty that was the essence of the old citizen’s army.
It also reminded new officers that they were trustees of America’s liberty, quoting an unnamed admiral’s words on the subject: “The American philosophy places the individual above the state. It distrusts personal power and coercion. It denies the existence of indispensable men. It asserts the supremacy of principle.”
Those words were a sound antidote to government-issue authoritarianism and militarism — and they still are. Together we all need to do our bit, not as G.I. Joes and Janes, but as Citizen Joes and Janes, to put personal liberty and constitutional principles first. In the spirit of Ronald Reagan, who told Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this [Berlin] wall,” isn’t it time to begin to tear down the walls of Fortress America and shed our militarized mindsets? Future generations of citizens will thank us, if we have the courage to do so.
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and TomDispatch regular, edits the blog The Contrary Perspective.
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Copyright 2014 William J. Astore
Reprinted from TomDispatch.com, with permission of the author
Don’t Walk Away from War
It’s Not the American Way
By Tom Engelhardt
The United States has been at war — major boots-on-the-ground conflicts and minor interventions, firefights, air strikes, drone assassination campaigns, occupations, special ops raids, proxy conflicts, and covert actions — nearly nonstop since the Vietnam War began. That’s more than half a century of experience with war, American-style, and yet few in our world bother to draw the obvious conclusions.
Given the historical record, those conclusions should be staring us in the face. They are, however, the words that can’t be said in a country committed to a military-first approach to the world, a continual build-up of its forces, an emphasis on pioneering work in the development and deployment of the latest destructive technology, and a repetitious cycling through styles of war from full-scale invasions and occupations to counterinsurgency, proxy wars, and back again.
So here are five straightforward lessons — none acceptable in what passes for discussion and debate in this country — that could be drawn from that last half century of every kind of American warfare:
1. No matter how you define American-style war or its goals, it doesn’t work. Ever.
2. No matter how you pose the problems of our world, it doesn’t solve them. Never.
3. No matter how often you cite the use of military force to “stabilize” or “protect” or “liberate” countries or regions, it is a destabilizing force.
4. No matter how regularly you praise the American way of war and its “warriors,” the U.S. military is incapable of winning its wars.
5. No matter how often American presidents claim that the U.S. military is “the finest fighting force in history,” the evidence is in: it isn’t.
And here’s a bonus lesson: if as a polity we were to take these five no-brainers to heart and stop fighting endless wars, which drain us of national treasure, we would also have a long-term solution to the Veterans Administration health-care crisis. It’s not the sort of thing said in our world, but the VA is in a crisis of financing and caregiving that, in the present context, cannot be solved, no matter whom you hire or fire. The only long-term solution would be to stop fighting losing wars that the American people will pay for decades into the future, as the cost in broken bodies and broken lives is translated into medical care and dumped on the VA.
Heroes and Turncoats
One caveat. Think whatever you want about war and American war-making, but keep in mind that we are inside an enormous propaganda machine of militarism, even if we barely acknowledge the space in our lives that it fills. Inside it, only certain opinions, certain thoughts, are acceptable, or even in some sense possible.
Take for an example the recent freeing of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl from five years as a captive of the Haqqani network. Much controversy has surrounded it, in part because he was traded for five former Taliban officials long kept uncharged and untried on the American Devil’s Island at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It has been suggested that Sgt. Bergdahl deserted his post and his unit in rural Afghanistan, simply walked away — which for opponents of the deal and of President Obama makes the “trade for terrorists” all the more shameful. Our options when it comes to what we know of Bergdahl’s actions are essentially to decry him as a “turncoat” or near-voluntary “terrorist prisoner” or ignore them, go into a “support the troops” mode, and hail him as a “hero” of the war. And yet there is a third option.
According to his father, in the period before he was captured, his emails home reflected growing disillusionment with the military. (“The U.S. army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at. It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies. The few good SGTs [sergeants] are getting out as soon as they can, and they are telling us privates to do the same.”) He had also evidently grown increasingly uncomfortable as well with the American war in that country. (“I am sorry for everything here. These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.”) When he departed his base, he may even have left a note behind expressing such sentiments. He had reportedly told someone in his unit earlier, “If this deployment is lame… I’m just going to walk off into the mountains of Pakistan.”
That’s what we know. There is much that we don’t know. However, what if, having concluded that the war was no favor to Afghans or Americans and he shouldn’t participate in it, he had, however naively, walked away from it without his weapon and, as it turned out, not into freedom but directly into captivity? That Sgt. Bergdahl might have been neither a military-style hero, nor a turncoat, but someone who voted with his feet on the merits of war, American-style, in Afghanistan is not an option that can be discussed calmly here. Similarly, anyone who took such a position here, not just in terms of our disastrous almost 13-year Afghan War, but of American war-making generally, would be seen as another kind of turncoat. However Americans may feel about specific wars, walking away from war, American-style, and the U.S. military as it is presently configured is not a fit subject for conversation, nor an option to be considered.
It’s been a commonplace of official opinion and polling data for some time that the American public is “exhausted” with our recent wars, but far too much can be read into that. Responding to such a mood, the president, his administration, and the Pentagon have been in a years-long process of “pivoting” from major wars and counterinsurgency campaigns to drone wars, special operations raids, and proxy wars across huge swaths of the planet (even while planning for future wars of a very different kind continues). But war itself and the U.S. military remain high on the American agenda. Military or militarized solutions continue to be the go-to response to global problems, the only question being: How much or how little? (In what passes for debate in this country, the president’s opponents regularly label him and his administration “weak” for not doubling down on war, from the Ukraine and Syria to Afghanistan).
Meanwhile, investment in the military’s future and its capacity to make war on a global scale remains staggeringly beyond that of any other power or combination of powers. No other country comes faintly close, not the Russians, nor the Chinese, nor the Europeans just now being encouraged to up their military game by President Obama who recently pledged a billion dollars to strengthen the U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe.
In such a context, to suggest the sweeping failure of the American military over these last decades without sapping support for the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex would involve making the most breathtaking stab-in-the-back argument in the historical record. This was tried after the Vietnam War, which engendered a vast antiwar movement at home. It was at least conceivable at the time to blame defeat on that movement, a “liberal” media, and lily-livered, micromanaging politicians. Even then, however, the stab-in-the-back version of the war never quite stuck and in all subsequent wars, support for the military among the political class and everywhere else has been so high, the obligatory need to “support the troops” — left, right, and center — so great that such an explanation would have been ludicrous.
A Record of Failure to Stagger the Imagination
The only option left was to ignore what should have been obvious to all. The result has been a record of failure that should stagger the imagination and remarkable silence on the subject. So let’s run through these points one at a time.
1. American-style war doesn’t work. Just ask yourself: Are there fewer terrorists or more in our world almost 13 years after the 9/11 attacks? Are al-Qaeda-like groups more or less common? Are they more or less well organized? Do they have more or fewer members? The answers to those questions are obvious: more, more, more, and more. In fact, according to a new RAND report, between 2010 and 2013 alone, jihadist groups grew by 58%, their fighters doubled, and their attacks nearly tripled.
On September 12, 2001, al-Qaeda was a relatively small organization with a few camps in arguably the most feudal and backward country on the planet, and tiny numbers of adherents scattered elsewhere around the world. Today, al-Qaeda-style outfits and jihadist groups control significant parts of Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and even Yemen, and are thriving and spreading in parts of Africa as well.
Or try questions like these: Is Iraq a peaceful, liberated state allied with and under Washington’s aegis, with “enduring camps” filled with U.S. troops on its territory? Or is it a riven, embattled, dilapidated country whose government is close to Iran and some of whose Sunni-dominated areas are under the control of a group that is more extreme than al-Qaeda? Is Afghanistan a peaceful, thriving, liberated land under the American aegis, or are Americans still fighting there almost 13 years later against the Taliban, an impossible-to-defeat minority movement it once destroyed and then, because it couldn’t stop fighting the “war on terror,” helped revive? Is Washington now supporting a weak, corrupt central government in a country that once again is planting record opium crops?
But let’s not belabor the point. Who, except a few neocons still plunking for the glories of “the surge” in Iraq, would claim military victory for this country, even of a limited sort, anywhere at any time in this century?
2. American-style wars don’t solve problems. In these years, you could argue that not a single U.S. military campaign or militarized act ordered by Washington solved a single problem anywhere. In fact, it’s possible that just about every military move Washington has made only increased the burden of problems on this planet. To make the case, you don’t even have to focus on the obvious like, for example, the way a special operations and drone campaign in Yemen has actually al-Qaeda-ized some of that country’s rural areas. Take instead a rare Washington “success”: the killing of Osama bin Laden in a special ops raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan. (And leave aside the way even that act was over-militarized: an unarmed Bin Laden was shot down in his Pakistani lair largely, it’s plausible to assume, because officials in Washington feared what once would have been the American way — putting him on trial in a U.S. civilian court for his crimes.) We now know that, in the hunt for bin Laden, the CIA launched a fake hepatitis B vaccination project. Though it proved of no use, once revealed it made local jihadists so nervous about medical health teams that they began killing groups of polio vaccination workers, an urge that has since spread to Boko Haram-controlled areas of Nigeria. In this way, according to Columbia University public health expert Leslie Roberts, “the distrust sowed by the sham campaign in Pakistan could conceivably postpone polio eradication for 20 years, leading to 100,000 more cases that might otherwise not have occurred.” The CIA has since promised not to do it again, but too late — and who at this point would believe the Agency anyway? This was, to say the least, an unanticipated consequence of the search for bin Laden, but blowback everywhere, invariably unexpected, has been a hallmark of American campaigns of all sorts.
Similarly, the NSA’s surveillance regime, another form of global intervention by Washington, has — experts are convinced — done little or nothing to protect Americans from terror attacks. It has, however, done a great deal to damage the interests of America’s tech corporations and to increasesuspicion and anger over Washington’s policies even among allies. And by the way, congratulations are due on one of the latest military moves of the Obama administration, the sending of U.S. militaryteams and drones into Nigeria and neighboring countries to help rescue those girls kidnapped by the extremist group Boko Haram. The rescue was a remarkable success… oops, didn’t happen (and we don’t even know yet what the blowback will be).
3. American-style war is a destabilizing force. Just look at the effects of American war in the twenty-first century. It’s clear, for instance, that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 unleashed a brutal, bloody, Sunni-Shiite civil war across the region (as well as the Arab Spring, one might argue). One result of that invasion and the subsequent occupation, as well as of the wars and civil wars that followed: the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Syrians, and Lebanese, while major areas of Syria and some parts of Iraq have fallen into the hands of armed supporters of al-Qaeda or, in one major case, a group that didn’t find that organization extreme enough. A significant part of the oil heartlands of the planet is, that is, being destabilized.
Meanwhile, the U.S. war in Afghanistan and the CIA’s drone assassination campaign in the tribal borderlands of neighboring Pakistan have destabilized that country, which now has its own fierce Taliban movement. The 2011 U.S. intervention in Libya initially seemed like a triumph, as had the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan before it. Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown and the rebels swept into power. Like Afghanistan and Iraq, however, Libya is now a basket case, riven by competing militias and ambitious generals, largely ungovernable, and an open wound for the region. Arms from Gaddafi’s looted arsenals have made their way into the hands of Islamist rebels and jihadist extremists from the Sinai Peninsula to Mali, from Northern Africa to northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram is entrenched. It is even possible, as Nick Turse has done, to trace the growing U.S. military presence in Africa to the destabilization of parts of that continent.
4. The U.S. military can’t win its wars. This is so obvious (though seldom said) that it hardly has to be explained. The U.S. military has not won a serious engagement since World War II: the results of wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq ranged from stalemate to defeat and disaster. With the exception of a couple of campaigns against essentially no one (in Grenada and Panama), nothing, including the “Global War on Terror,” would qualify as a success on its own terms, no less anyone else’s. This was true, strategically speaking, despite the fact that, in all these wars, the U.S. controlled the air space, the seas (where relevant), and just about any field of battle where the enemy might be met. Its firepower was overwhelming and its ability to lose in small-scale combat just about nil.
It would be folly to imagine that this record represents the historical norm. It doesn’t. It might be more relevant to suggest that the sorts of imperial wars and wars of pacification the U.S. has fought in recent times, often against poorly armed, minimally trained, minority insurgencies (or terror outfits), are simply unwinnable. They seem to generate their own resistance. Their brutalities and even their “victories” simply act as recruitment posters for the enemy.
5. The U.S. military is not “the finest fighting force the world has ever known” or “the greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known,” or any of the similar over-the-top descriptions that U.S. presidents are now regularly obligated to use. If you want the explanation for why this is so, see points one through four above. A military whose way of war doesn’t work, doesn’t solve problems, destabilizes whatever it touches, and never wins simply can’t be the greatest in history, no matter the firepower it musters. If you really need further proof of this, think about the crisis and scandals linked to the Veterans Administration. They are visibly the fruit of a military mired in frustration, despair, and defeat, not a triumphant one holding high history’s banner of victory.
As for Peace, Not a Penny
Is there a record like it? More than half a century of American-style war by the most powerful and potentially destructive military on the planet adds up to worse than nothing. If any other institution in American life had a comparable scorecard, it would be shunned like the plague. In reality, the VA has a far better record of success when it comes to the treatment of those broken by our wars than the military does of winning them, and yet its head administrator was forced to resign recently amid scandal and a media firestorm.
As in Iraq, Washington has a way of sending in the Marines, setting the demons loose, leaving town, and then wondering how in the world things got so bad — as if it had no responsibility for what happened. Don’t think, by the way, that no one ever warned us either. Who, for instance, remembers Arab League head Amr Moussa saying in 2004 that the U.S. had opened the “gates of hell” in its invasion and occupation of Iraq? Who remembers the vast antiwar movement in the U.S. and around the world that tried to stop the launching of that invasion, the hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets to warn of the dangers before it was too late? In fact, being in that antiwar movement more or less guaranteed that ever after you couldn’t appear on the op-ed pages of America’s major papers to discuss the disaster you had predicted. The only people asked to comment were those who had carried it out, beaten the drums for it, or offered the mildest tsk-tsk about it.
By the way, don’t think for a moment that war never solved a problem, or achieved a goal for an imperial or other regime, or that countries didn’t regularly find victory in arms. History is filled with such examples. So what if, in some still-to-be-understood way, something has changed on planet Earth? What if something in the nature of imperial war now precludes victory, the achieving of goals, the “solving” of problems in our present world? Given the American record, it’s at least a thought worth considering.
As for peace? Not even a penny for your thoughts on that one. If you suggested pouring, say, $50 billion into planning for peace, no less the $500 billion that goes to the Pentagon annually for its base budget, just about anyone would laugh in your face. (And keep in mind that that figure doesn’t include most of the budget for the increasingly militarized U.S. Intelligence Community, or extra war costs for Afghanistan, or the budget of the increasingly militarized Department of Homeland Security, or other costs hidden elsewhere, including, for example, for the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which is buried in the Energy Department’s budget.)
That possible solutions to global problems, possible winning strategies, might come from elsewhere than the U.S. military or other parts of the national security state, based on 50 years of imperial failure, 50 years of problems unsolved and wars not won and goals not reached, of increasing instability and destruction, of lives (American and otherwise) snuffed out or broken? Not on your life.
Don’t walk away from war. It’s not the American way.
Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.
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