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Tomgram: William Astore, Drowning in Militarism

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Spot on, Herb Mitgang, who perhaps played his share of craps during his Army service!

As I read Fulbright's almost 50-year-old polemic and Mitgang's hard-hitting review, I asked myself, how did the American people come to forget, or perhaps never truly absorb, such lessons? How did we stop worrying about war and come to love the all-volunteer military quite so much? (Thank you for your service!) So much so that, today, we engorge the Pentagon and the rest of the national security state with well more than a trillion taxpayer dollars annually -- and the power to match.

The Pentagon as a Parasitic Cowbird

In 2019, most Americans see the Pentagon and the U.S. military as this country's protectors -- a force for good, perhaps the equivalent of an eagle, that national symbol, soaring over an endangered land. What if, however, we saw the Pentagon not as a noble bird, a symbol of freedom and strength, but as a parasitic one? What if the avian image that came to mind was the opportunistic cowbird?

I thought of this due to a recent little drama in my own backyard. There, I spied a nest built by a pair of yellow warblers. It had five eggs in it, and I was able to get a photo of them. I didn't notice at the time -- because I was taking care not to linger -- that one egg was significantly larger than the others with different markings on it. When they hatched, one chick was also bigger, pushier, louder, more insistent, and hungrier than the others. It turned out to be a cowbird! Like the more famous cuckoo, cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds' nests and trick them into raising their chicks. In the end, those two adult yellow warblers tirelessly and obliviously fed that alien chick, as their own tiny babes were crowded out and died. The cowbird managed to consume everything, its cavernous mouth eternally clamoring for more.

I assume by now that you get where I'm going with this. Think of that greedy cowbird as the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex in which it's enmeshed. And we American taxpayers, through our bought-and-paid-for representatives in Congress, are those misguided yellow warblers, continually feeding the equivalent of our very own cowbird chick, now grown to tremendous size and still crying out for more. What we're feeding it, of course, is the very promise of America, as it starves our real chicks, precious funding for education, infrastructure, the environment, and health care.

Of course, my analogy is imperfect. After all, that cowbird chick fledged quickly and flew away, releasing the warbler parents from their sad and misbegotten duty. The Pentagon and the rest of the national security state never fledge. They never leave the nest. They're always crying for more money.

Here's the truth of it, as I see it these days: if Americans are ever to gain control over that national security state, they will first have to recognize its parasitic nature, and the way it continues to stuff its greedy mouth with our cash, which is killing the best hopes for the future of our country.

Another Lesson from Nature -- This Time from the Sea

A friend of mine was recently doing research in the papers of Matthew Ridgway, the celebrated general of both World War II and the Korean War. There, he came across a 1940 statement from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Created by scholars as World War I was ending, originally to advise the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, the CFR typically offers presidents a somewhat broader range of opinions than they usually get from senior military officers and other Washington insiders.

As Americans wrestled with the possibility of finding themselves in a second looming world war, what advice did the CFR have for then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940?

"For Germany and Italy, especially, and for Russia and Japan, to a somewhat lesser extent, military power has come to be the ultimate raison d'être of the state, while war itself is regarded as a natural and ennobling process in the international struggle for existence. The non-totalitarian world, on the contrary, still clings to a philosophy in which military power is regarded as a necessary attribute, but not a primary goal, of the national sovereignty -- a philosophy which considers war as an aberration from what should be the peaceful norm of human development... If we fail to produce an alternative to the use of force in the totalitarian philosophy, if we fail to demonstrate that our international society holds more hope for a peaceful and profitable future than theirs, then the United States (and other like-minded nations) will be forced into a defensive type of attitude which makes no converts and holds no friends."

Such statements make me nostalgic. Remember when America was part of the "non-totalitarian world"? Remember when our presidents didn't boast of having the greatest military in all of history? Remember when our generals didn't speak proudly of engaging in unending "generational" wars as if they were the ultimate test of our mettle? Remember when we truly saw war as an "aberration," something both undesirable and antithetical to democracy? Remember when our most basic urge was, if humanly possible, to swim vigorously away from war's storm clouds toward the shores of "a peaceful and profitable future"?

Yes, in December 1941, the American people did finally begin to mobilize in a big way and march off to war, however reluctantly, and, in the end, they did decisively defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. But also remember how quickly, in the wake of that war, Americans expected that their vast wartime military would be demobilized (and indeed it would, however briefly).

Yet here's the sad thing: for Americans, World War II, like its prequel, proved to be anything but a war to end all wars. In its aftermath, new rumors of war emerged. Far too quickly, the U.S. found itself in a riptide of never-ending war (whether "hot" or "cold") and preparations for yet more of the same, all of which pushed us ever deeper into the colder waters of militarism.

Such an oceanic current is a tricky thing. Caught up in war's version of the same, from the Cold War to today, Washington has embraced the challenge with ever more weaponry, ever more troops and bases across the planet, ever more military spending, violence, and war.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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