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General News    H3'ed 7/28/20

Tomgram: William Astore, Thinking About the Unthinkable (2020-Style)

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

He sent what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called his "unidentified storm troopers" togged out like soldiers in a war zone onto streets filled with protesters in Portland, Oregon. Those camouflage-clad federal law enforcement agents were evidently from the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Protective Service and the Customs and Border Protection agency. Soon, hundreds of them are evidently going to "surge" -- a term that should sound eerily familiar -- into Chicago and other cities run by Democratic mayors. In such a fashion, Donald Trump is quite literally bringing this country's wars home. Speaking with reporters in the Oval Office, he recently described everyday violence in Chicago as "worse than Afghanistan, by far." He was talking about the country the U.S. invaded in 2001 and in which it hasn't stopped fighting ever since, a land where more than 100,000 civilians reportedly died violently between 2010 and 2019. By now, violence in Chicago (which is indeed grim) has, in the mind of the Great Confabulator, become "worse than anything anyone has ever seen" and so worthy of yet more militarized chaos.

Of course, in speaking of such violence, the president clearly wasn't talking about Christopher David's broken bones. That Navy veteran, having read of unidentified federal agents snatching protesters off Portland's streets in unmarked vans, took a bus to the city's nighttime protests. He wanted to ask such agents personally how they could justify their actions in terms of the oath they took to support the Constitution. For doing just that, they beat and pepper-sprayed him. Now, the president who claimed he would end all American wars (but hasn't faintly done so) has offered a footnote to that promise. Admittedly, he's only recently agreed, so it seems, to leave at least 4,000 American troops (and god knows how many private contractors) in Afghanistan beyond the November election, while U.S. air strikes there continue into what will be their 19th year. Now, however, he's stoking violence at home as well in search of an issue to mobilize and strengthen his waning support in the upcoming election.

In other words, he's giving the very idea of our wars coming home new meaning. As retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, historian, and TomDispatch regular William Astore suggests today, this country's "forever wars" have become a kind of global pandemic of their own. It tells you all you need to know about this country in July 2020 that, even as congressional Democrats and Republicans fight over what kind of new bill to pass to help coronavirus-riven America, another bill will face no such issues in Congress. I'm thinking of the one that Republican Senator James Inhofe has labeled "the most important bill of the year": to fund the U.S. military (and the military-industrial complex that goes with it). Oh, wait, unless the president decides to veto it because a mandate may be included in it to remove the names of Confederate generals from U.S. military bases.

Really, can you imagine a world in more of a pandemic mess than this one? Well, let Astore take a shot at it. Tom

Killing Democracy in America
The Military-Industrial Complex as a Cytokine Storm
By William J. Astore

The phrase "thinking about the unthinkable" has always been associated with the unthinkable cataclysm of a nuclear war, and rightly so. Lately, though, I've been pondering another kind of unthinkable scenario, nearly as nightmarish (at least for a democracy) as a thermonuclear Armageddon, but one that's been rolling out in far slower motion: that America's war on terror never ends because it's far more convenient for America's leaders to keep it going -- until, that is, it tears apart anything we ever imagined as democracy.

I fear that it either can't or won't end because, as Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out in 1967 during the Vietnam War, the United States remains the world's greatest purveyor of violence -- and nothing in this century, the one he didn't live to see, has faintly proved him wrong. Considered another way, Washington should be classified as the planet's most committed arsonist, regularly setting or fanning the flames of fires globally from Libya to Iraq, Somalia to Afghanistan, Syria to -- dare I say it -- in some quite imaginable future Iran, even as our leaders invariably boast of having the world's greatest firefighters (also known as the U.S. military).

Scenarios of perpetual war haunt my thoughts. For a healthy democracy, there should be few things more unthinkable than never-ending conflict, that steady drip-drip of death and destruction that drives militarism, reinforces authoritarianism, and facilitates disaster capitalism. In 1795, James Madison warned Americans that war of that sort would presage the slow death of freedom and representative government. His prediction seems all too relevant in a world in which, year after year, this country continues to engage in needless wars that have nothing to do with national defense.

You Wage War Long, You Wage It Wrong

To cite one example of needless war from the last century, consider America's horrendous years of fighting in Vietnam and a critical lesson drawn firsthand from that conflict by reporter Jonathan Schell. "In Vietnam," he noted, "I learned about the capacity of the human mind to build a model of experience that screens out even very dramatic and obvious realities." As a young journalist covering the war, Schell saw that the U.S. was losing, even as its military was destroying startlingly large areas of South Vietnam in the name of saving it from communism. Yet America's leaders, the "best and brightest" of the era, almost to a man refused to see that all of what passed for realism in their world, when it came to that war, was nothing short of a first-class lie.

Why? Because believing is seeing and they desperately wanted to believe that they were the good guys, as well as the most powerful guys on the planet. America was winning, it practically went without saying, because it had to be. They were infected by their own version of an all-American victory culture, blinded by a sense of this country's obvious destiny: to be the most exceptional and exceptionally triumphant nation on this planet.

As it happened, it was far more difficult for grunts on the ground to deny the reality of what was happening -- that they were fighting and dying in a senseless war. As a result, especially after the shock of the enemy's Tet Offensive early in 1968, escalating protests within the military (and among veterans at home) together with massive antiwar demonstrations finally helped put the brakes on that war. Not before, however, more than 58,000 American troops died, along with millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians.

In the end, the war in Indochina was arguably too costly, messy, and futile to continue. But never underestimate the military-industrial complex, especially when it comes to editing or denying reality, while being eternally over-funded for that very reality. It's a trait the complex has shared with politicians of both parties. Don't forget, for instance, the way President Ronald Reagan reedited that disastrous conflict into a "noble cause" in the 1980s. And give him credit! That was no small thing to sell to an American public that had already lived through such a war. By the way, tell me something about that Reaganesque moment doesn't sound vaguely familiar almost four decades later when our very own "wartime president" long ago declared victory in the "war" on Covid-19, even as the death toll from that virus approaches 150,000 in the homeland.

In the meantime, the military-industrial complex has mastered the long con of the no-win forever war in a genuinely impressive fashion. Consider the war in Afghanistan. In 2021 it will enter its third decade without an end in sight. Even when President Trump makes noises about withdrawing troops from that country, Congress approves an amendment to another massive, record-setting military budget with broad bipartisan support that effectively obstructs any efforts to do so (while the Pentagon continues to bargain Trump down on the subject).

The Vietnam War, which was destroying the U.S. military, finally ended in an ignominious withdrawal. Almost two decades later, after the 2001 invasion, the war in Afghanistan can now be -- the dream of the Vietnam era -- fought in a "limited" fashion, at least from the point of view of Congress, the Pentagon, and most Americans (who ignore it), even if not the Afghans. The number of American troops being killed is, at this point, acceptably low, almost imperceptible in fact (even if not to Americans who have lost loved ones over there).

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("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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