Last month I had the opportunity to share some thoughts at a Divest Philly from the War Machine event, hosted by Wooden Shoe Books and sponsored by World Beyond War, Code Pink, Veterans for Peace, and other anti-war groups. Below are my remarks, slightly edited for clarity. My thanks to everyone involved.
In late May, Vice President Mike Pence was the commencement speaker at West Point. In part, he told the graduating cadets this: "It is a virtual certainty that you will fight on a battlefield for America at some point in your life. You will lead soldiers in combat. It will happen"And when that day comes, I know you will move to the sound of the guns and do your duty, and you will fight, and you will win. The American people expect nothing less."
What Pence didn't mention that day is why he could be so sure that this will come to pass. Or who the primary beneficiaries will be, if or when it does. Because the winners won't be the American people, who see their taxes go to missiles instead of healthcare and education. Nor will they be the soldiers themselvessome of whom will return in flag-draped caskets while many more sustain life-altering physical and psychological injuries. The winners also won't be the citizens of other countries who experience death and displacement on a horrific scale from our awesome military might. And our planet's now-fragile climate won't come out on top either, since the Pentagon is the single largest oil consumer in the world.
No, the spoils will go to our massive and multifaceted war machine. The war machine is comprised of companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, and Raytheon, among others, that make billions of dollars each year from war, war preparations, and arms sales. In fact, the U.S. government pays Lockheed alone more each year than it provides in funding to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Labor Department, and the Interior Department combined. The war machine also includes the CEOs of these defense contractors, who personally take in tens of millions of dollars annually, and the many politicians in Washington who help secure their jobs by collectively accepting millions of dollars in contributions from the defense industryroughly evenly split between both major parties. And let's not forget the retired politicians and retired military officers, who travel the pot-of-gold pipeline to become highly paid board members and spokespersons for these same companies.
Vice-President Pence also didn't mention to the cadets that the U.S. military budget today exceeds that of the next seven largest countries combinedan enthusiastic display of Congressional bipartisanship at its very worst. Nor did he note that we're the largest international seller of major weapons in the world, with ongoing efforts to promote even bigger markets for U.S. arms companies in countries run by ruthless, repressive autocrats. That's how it came to pass last August, for example, that Saudi Arabia used an expensive Lockheed laser-guided bomb to blow up a bus in Yemen, killing 40 young boys who were on a school trip.
Given these realities, I'd like to offer my perspectiveas a psychologiston a question that has never really been more timely: How is it that the war profiteers, card-carrying members of the so-called 1%, continue to thrive despite all the harm and misery they cause for so many? We know that the 1%the self-interested very rich and powerfulset the priorities of many of our elected officials. We also know that they exert considerable influence over the mainstream media regarding which narratives are promoted and which are obscured. But in my own work, what's most importantand what too often goes unrecognizedare the propaganda strategies they use to prevent us from realizing what's gone wrong, who's to blame, and how we can make things better. And nowhere is this more apparent or more consequential than when it comes to the one-percenters who run our war machine.
My research shows that their manipulative messageswhat I call "mind games"target five concerns that dominate our daily lives: namely, issues of vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. These are the psychological templates we use to make sense of the world around us. Each is associated with a key question we ask ourselves regularly: Are we safe? Are we being treated fairly? Who should we trust? Are we good enough? And, can we control what happens to us? And it's no coincidence that each is also linked to a powerful emotion that can be hard to control: fear, anger, suspicion, pride, and despair, respectively.
War profiteers prey on these five concerns with two simple goals in mind. First, they aim to create and maintain an American public that either embraces or at least accepts an endless war mentality. And second, they use these mind games to marginalize and disempower anti-war voices. For each of these five concerns, I'd like to provide two examples of the mind games I'm talking about, and then discuss how we can counter them.
Let's start with vulnerability. Whether as quickly passing thoughts or haunting worries, we tend to wonder if the people we care about are in harm's way, and if there might be danger on the horizon. Right or wrong, our judgments on these matters go a long way in determining the choices we make and the actions we take. Our focus on vulnerability isn't surprising. It's only when we think we're safe that we comfortably turn our attention to other things. Unfortunately, however, we're not very good at assessing risks or the effectiveness of potential responses to them. That's why psychological appeals targeting these vulnerability concerns are a core element of the war machine's propaganda arsenal.
"It's A Dangerous World" is one vulnerability mind game that war profiteers regularly use to build public support for their greed-driven activities. They argue that their actions are necessary in order to keep everyone safe from ominous threats. They exaggerate or entirely fabricate these dangerswhether they're talking about dominoes falling to the Red Menace in Southeast Asia, or the Axis of Evil and mushroom clouds over U.S. cities, or anti-war protestors purportedly posing a threat to our national security. They know that we're soft targets for such psychological tactics because, in our desire to avoid being unprepared when danger strikes, we're quick to imagine catastrophic outcomes no matter how unlikely they may be. That's why we can be easy prey when they urge us to fall in line, comply with their instructions, and perhaps relinquish our civil rights as well.
At the same time, war machine representatives often turn to a second vulnerability mind game"Change Is Dangerous"when they're trying to marginalize their critics. Here, when a proposed reform would hamper their ambitions, they mislead us by insisting that these changes will place everyone in greater jeopardywhether the proposal is about reducing our staggering 800 overseas military bases; or withdrawing troops from Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq; or cutting our enormous defense budget. This mind game often works because of what psychologists call "status quo bias." That is, we generally prefer to keep things the way they areeven if they're not particularly goodrather than face the uncertainty of less familiar options, even if those other alternatives are exactly what's needed to make the world a safer place. But, of course, our welfare is not the most pressing issue as far as the war profiteers are concerned.
Let's turn now to injustice, the second core concern. Cases of real or perceived mistreatment frequently stir anger and resentment, as well as an urge to right wrongs and bring accountability to those who are responsible. That can all be very good. But our perceptions about what's just and what's not are imperfect. This makes us potential easy targets for manipulation by those who have a selfish interest in shaping our views of right and wrong to their advantageand it's exactly what representatives of the war machine work hard to do.
For example, "We're Fighting Injustice" is one of the war profiteers' favorite injustice mind games for generating public support for endless wars. Here, they insist that their actions reflect an abiding commitment to combating wrongdoingwhether they're falsely arguing that Iran has engaged in unprovoked hostility; or that Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning, who exposed U.S. war crimes, deserve punishment for treason; or that government surveillance and disruption of anti-war groups are necessary responses to purported unlawful activity. This mind game is designed to misappropriate and misdirect our sense of outrage over injustice. It takes advantage of our psychological tendency to believe that the world is just, and to therefore assume that those who have obtained positions of power are fair-minded rather than driven by craven self-interesteven though their actions so often harm rather than help the prospects for peace.
Simultaneously, "We're the Victims" is a second injustice mind game, and it's used to marginalize critics. When their policies or actions are condemned, representatives of the war machine brazenly complain of being mistreated themselves. So, for example, the Pentagon expressed outrage that the Abu Ghraib torture photos were disseminated without its permission; the White House blusters that the International Criminal Court has a vendetta against innocent American soldiers, or so they say; and bomb-making companies gripe that they shouldn't be criticized for selling weapons to overseas dictators since our government has authorized the salesas if that somehow makes it the right thing to do. Claims like these are designed to encourage uncertainty and disagreement among the public over issues of right and wrong, and victim and perpetrator. When this turning of the tables is successful, our concern is directed away from those who actually suffer from our endless wars.
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