"How does it become a man to behave toward this American government to-day? I answer that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it." -- Henry David Thoreau
To me, this quote from Thoreau expresses the only
rational, moral and humane stance that a citizen can take toward the vast and
brutal machinery of the American imperial state in our time. The crimes of this
state are monstrous, and mounting. But what is worse is that these crimes are
not aberrations; they are the very essence of the system -- they are its goal,
its product, its lifeblood.
And what is this crimeful essence? Matt Taibbi described it well in a recent article:
Our Western society quite openly embraces war as a means of solving problems, and for quite some time now has fashioned its entire social and economic structure around the preparation for war.
I believe this is an indisputable fact. Decades of
historical evidence give it proof. The last three decades especially have seen
the relentless acceleration of this systemic evolution. The quality of life for
ordinary Americans, those outside the golden circle of the elite and their
retainers, has decayed immeasurably -- and measurably. Stagnant wages. Degraded
infrastructure. A poisoned food chain. Whole communities -- with all their
social, political, cultural and family networks -- gutted by the heedless flight
of capital to cheap labor (and slave labor) markets abroad, and by the
dissolution of an embodied economic life into the shadow-play of high finance,
the ghostly manipulation of numbers that produces nothing of value except
gargantuan profits for a very few. A bonfire of public amenities, making daily
life harder, harsher, constricted, diminished. Ever-growing social and economic
disparity, shrinking the circle of opportunity. Two million citizens behind
bars, in prisons overflowing with non-violent drug cases -- nightmarish
institutions given over to gangs, neglect, punitive regimens and private
Yet this long, grinding process of diminishment and degradation has been accompanied by a never-ending expansion of the war machine into a dominant position over almost every aspect of American life. Not even the ending of the Cold War slowed this excrescence; defense budgets grew, new enemies were found, there were new missions, new commands, new wars. The ruling elite of American society were -- and are -- obviously willing to let the welfare, prosperity, opportunities and liberties of the common people sink deeper and deeper into the mire, in order to finance a system structured around war, with all the attendant corruption, brutalization and accrual of authoritarian power that war brings.
This is the system we have. It's right out in the open. There is a deep-rooted expectation -- and not, alas, just among the elite -- that the world should jump to America's tune, by force if necessary. And when, for whatever reason, some part of the world does not jump -- or bump and grind -- to the Potomac beat, then it becomes a "problem" that must be "solved," by one means or another, with, of course, "all options on the table," all the time. And whether these "problems" are approached with blunt, bullying talk or a degree of cajolery and pious rhetoric, the chosen stance is always backed up with the ever-present threat of military action, up to and including the last of those "options" that always decorate the table: utter annihilation.
This is not even questioned, must less debated or challenged. America's right to intervene in the affairs other nations by violent force (along with a constant series of illegal covert activities) -- and to impose an empire of military plantations across the length and breadth of the entire planet -- is the basic assumption, the underlying principle, the fervently held faith shared by both national parties, and the entire elite Establishment. And if you want to have the necessary instruments to maintain such a state of hegemony, then you must indeed structure your society and economy around war.
Many nations -- all vanished now -- have done this. The Roman Empire was one. Nazi Germany was another. At great cost to the economic, social and political life of ordinary Germans, Adolf Hitler geared the state to produce the war machine necessary to assert the dominance in world affairs which he felt was Germany's natural right. One of his chief aims was to procure enough "living space" and natural resources in Eastern Europe to compete with America's growing economic might. The Holocaust of European Jews was, for all its horror, just a preliminary to the greater "ethnic cleansing" to come. As historian Adam Tooze reminds us in The Wages of Destruction, the Nazis had drawn up detailed plans for the extermination -- by active mass murder and deliberate starvation -- of up to 40 million East Europeans.
Today, we all recognize the inhuman madness behind this hegemonic ambition. We shake our heads and say, "Whatever evils we may be accused of, we have never and would never do such a thing." Perhaps. But leaving aside for a moment the millions -- millions -- of African slaves and Native Americans who died in order to procure the living space and natural resources of North and South America for European peoples, it is clear that most Americans -- the elite above all -- can easily countenance the deaths of, say, more than one million innocent Iraqis, or upwards of three million Southeast Asians, without any disturbance in their sense of national righteousness, their bedrock belief that the United States has the natural right, even the duty, to assert its hegemony over world affairs.
The mass murder in Iraq, the horrible slaughter in Vietnam and Cambodia, the direct involvement in the massacre of hundreds of thousands of people in Indonesia, Latin America, and the Iran-Iraq War -- to name just a few such operations carried out within the last generation -- are regarded as actions which, however "mistaken" some might feel them to have been, were undertaken in good faith, to "preserve our way of life" from this or that imminent, overwhelming threat to our very national existence. [Which was, of course, the same reasoning Hitler used to justify his militarism: the urgent need to protect the German people from maniacal, irrational, bloodsworn enemies bent on their total destruction.]
And let us not forget that American war planners also drew up detailed plans involving the extermination of tens of millions of East Europeans in "first strike" nuclear attacks -- plans which they often urged national leaders to put into practice. And even today, the constantly asserted vow to keep the nuclear option "on the table" at all times means that every single action or policy toward a "problem" nation carries with it the explicit threat to kill millions of people -- to outdo the Holocaust in a matter of minutes.
Can one really look at such plans and attitudes, and at the towering, Everest-like mountain of corpses produced by American polices -- just in the last generation -- and say that there is not also a form of inhuman madness behind this hegemonic ambition as well? Is this really a system that one can be associated with honorably in any way? What should we think about a person who wants to lead such a system, who wants to take hold of the driving wheel of the war machine, to use it, to expand it, to accept all of its premises, to keep all of its horrific "options" forever on the table, to feed it and gorge it and coddle it and appease it at every turn, while millions of their own people sink further into degradation and diminishment?
Shouldn't someone who knowingly, willingly, eagerly bent all of their energies toward taking power in such a system instantly and irretrievably forfeit our regard and support? Should we really give such a "leader" the benefit of the doubt, cut him some slack, be ready to praise him when he or his government momentarily behaves in a normal, rational or legal manner? Should we grimly insist that he is the only choice we have, that his heart is probably in the right place, and that all we can do is try and cajole him into being "better"?
In the light of these considerations, it is astonishing to see what has been the main reaction of many leading progressive writers to Barack Obama's murderous escalation of the imperial war in Afghanistan and the dirty war in Pakistan. While voicing their "disappointment" with the decision, they have reserved most of their scorn not for the man who has ordered this new tranche of mass death and inhuman suffering, but for those who have accused Obama of "betrayal."
No, that's not a joke. The new progressive line on the escalation seems to be this: "We knew all along he was going to do it, so what's the big deal?"
That has been the chief response from such high-profile progressives as Digby and Joan Walsh. They seem far more worked up about the fact that some people (such as Tom Hayden, Gary Wills, and others) are accusing Obama of "betrayal" than they are about the thousands of innocent people who will die from Obama's decision, and the long-reverberating evil, at home and abroad, this escalation will engender.
Both Digby and Walsh are at great pains to establish how savvy they have been about Obama from the very beginning. For example, Digby writes: "I never had any illusions about where he and most of the other Democrats were headed with the "Good War" narrative. It always ends up the same way." She ridicules Hayden for declaring, during the campaign, that "all American progressives should unite for Barack Obama," and for now being disappointed that the president is not "the second coming of Ghandi, Houdini and Jesus Christ," as Digby scornfully describes Hayden's earlier belief.