[Note for TomDispatch Readers:I want to remind you that, as President Trump escalates America's wars in the Greater Middle East, our newest Dispatch Book, John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War Two, only becomes more relevant. In fact, today's TD author, Ira Chernus, just published a vivid piece on this country's warring state of mind at CommonDreams, focused in part on Dower's book, which he describes thusly: "It's a small book; you can read it in one evening. But don't expect to sleep well that night. Because it's densely packed with disturbing facts and figures that directly challenge those supposed experts who confidently tell us that murderous wars are becoming a relic of the past." Remember that you can pick up a copy by clicking here or, by going to the website of Haymarket Books at this link, where it's available at an exclusive TomDispatch discount of 50% off. In either case, you get a remarkable work by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, while offering the crew at TomDispatch support in our modest endeavors to change the way all of us think about our world. Tom]
Recently, historians Samuel Moyn and Stephen Wertheim wrote an interesting New York Times op-ed on why the last 15 years of failed American wars across the Greater Middle East seem to have taught our military and civilian leadership absolutely nothing. Hence, the recent 59-missile strike against a Syrian airfield -- just the latest act that has "this can't end well" written all over it. One small thing in their essay, however, caught my attention on a personal level. As a point of comparison for America's twenty-first-century wars, in which lessons were the last thing to be drawn, the authors point to this country's "long reckoning" with the consequences of the Vietnam War with which they are evidently impressed.
That comment hit a nerve in me, since the "reckoning" was, to my mind, largely one by the military high command, which proceeded to draw the lesson that protesters in arms were not the military force it had in mind and so junked the draft and the concept of a true citizen's army. Similarly, the Reaganite right redefined Vietnam as a "noble cause" and then went about its war-making business (though -- lessons learned, assumedly -- largely by proxy), while Congress, which did indeed pass the War Powers Act in 1973 before Vietnam was even over, theoretically limiting the scope of presidential war-making powers, thereafter gave up the ghost of its own war powers. As a result, by my calculations, Americans had all of four war-less years (1975-1979) before the Reagan administration started all over again in Afghanistan (and, speaking of lessons unlearned, you know where that led in blowback terms). America's two Afghan wars -- with just over a decade off between the Soviet withdrawal from that country and 9/11 -- have now lasted almost three decades with no end in sight. Then there were the three Iraq Wars, starting with Desert Storm in 1990-1991. The most recent is still underway. And don't forget the Central American Contra wars of the 1980s, the invasion of Grenada (1983), the intervention in Lebanon (1983), the invasion of Panama (1989-1990), the Bosnian intervention (1992-1995), conflicts in two phases in Somalia (the early 1990s and post-9/11), and of course the present ongoing conflicts in Yemen, Libya, Syria, and so on.
In other words, those four years of "peace" aside, the years from 1975 to 2017 have been a veritable war fest for Washington. So let it not be said that, in the post-Vietnam era, we have ever truly come to grips with war, American-style, and what to make of it, no less what lessons to draw from it.
This came to mind because, in today's post, TomDispatch regular Ira Chernus plunges into movements past and oh-so-present, including the antiwar movement of the Vietnam era, and the degree to which they either have or, in the age of Trump, may come to grips with the deeper maladies of American society. It led me to remember my own experience in those Vietnam years. From perhaps 1968 to 1973 or 1974, I worked incessantly against America's wars in Southeast Asia in a variety of ways. It was an essential part of my life. When Vietnam ended, however, like much of the antiwar movement of that time, I essentially moved on. It's a great sadness, looking back, to realize that such a large-scale mobilization of the American spirit against the grimmest of wars, a movement whose members plunged deep into questions of American war-making and the nature of a society that could pursue such a conflict, somehow didn't make it beyond the war years with its conclusions intact and so didn't help prevent the endless wars to come. In that spirit and in the memory of what wasn't, I hope Chernus's piece sparks some thought about what could be. Tom
Trump, A Symptom Of What?
A Radical Message From a Half-Century Ago
By Ira Chernus
You could hear the deep sadness in the preacher's voice as he named "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government." With those words, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., launched a scathing indictment of America's war in Vietnam. It was April 4, 1967.
That first antiwar sermon of his seemed to signal a new high tide of opposition to a brutal set of American policies in Southeast Asia. Just 11 days later, unexpectedly large crowds would come out in New York and San Francisco for the first truly massive antiwar rallies. Back then, a protest of at least a quarter of a million seemed yuge.
King signaled another turning point when he concluded his speech by bringing up "something even more disturbing" -- something that would deeply disturb the developing antiwar movement as well. "The war in Vietnam," he said, "is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit."
Many of those who gathered at antiwar rallies days later were already beginning to suspect the same thing. Even if they could actually force their government to end its war in Vietnam, they would be healing only a symptom of a far more profound illness. With that realization came a shift in consciousness, the clearest sign of which could be found in the sizeable contingent of countercultural hippies who began joining those protests. While antiwar radicals were challenging the unjust political and military policies of their government, the counterculturists were focused on something bigger: trying to revolutionize the whole fabric of American society.
Why recall this history exactly 50 years later, in the age of Donald Trump? Curiously enough, King offered at least a partial answer to that question in his 1967 warning about the deeper malady. "If we ignore this sobering reality," he said, "we will find ourselves... marching... and attending rallies without end." The alternative? "We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values."
Like many of my generation, I feel as if, in lieu of that radical revolution, I have indeed been marching and attending rallies for the last half-century, even if there were also long fallow periods of inactivity. (In those quiet times, of course, there was always organizing and activism going on behind the scenes, preparing for the next wave of marches and demonstrations in response to the next set of obvious outrages.)
If the arc of history bends toward justice, as King claimed, it's been a strange journey, a bizarre twisting and turning as if we were all on some crazed roller-coaster ride.
The Trump era already seems like the most bizarre twist of all, leaving us little choice but to march and rally at a quickening pace for years to come. A radical revolution in values? Unless you're thinking of Trump's plutocrats and environment wreckers, not so much. If anything, the nation once again finds itself facing an exaggerated symptom of a far deeper malady. Perhaps one day, like the antiwar protestors of 1967, anti-Trump protestors will say: If the American system we live under can create this atrocity, there must be something wrong with the whole thing.
But that's the future. At present, the resistance movement, though as unexpectedly large as the movement of 1967, is still focused mainly on symptoms, the expanding list of inhumane 1% policies the Republicans (themselves in chaos) are preparing to foist on the nation. Yet to come up are the crucial questions: What's wrong with our system? How could it produce a President Trump, a Republican hegemony, and the society-wrecking policies that go with them both? What would a radically new direction mean and how would we head there?