America has essentially been at war, nonstop, since the weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Those "forever wars," as they're now commonly called, have been both truly distant from and eerily close to us, far away and yet a deeply embedded part of American life. And here, to my mind, is the strangest thing: those rare figures who, as citizens (or in one case an outsider), managed to reach into the heart of the American-war and national-security states and reveal something of what was actually being done in our names have suffered grim fates indeed.
Take Edward Snowden, who, in 2013, as a private contractor working for the National Security Agency (NSA), revealed the vast surveillance structure that had been built in the shadows quite literally as a kind of shadow government in the post-9/11 years and significantly aimed at Americans. For his revelations (that is, his "crime"), he would be charged under the 1917 Espionage Act meant to criminalize dissent against the U.S. entry into World War I. He is now a resident of Russia (of all places) because, were he to return to his homeland, he might never again make it out of a prison cell. Chelsea Manning, who as an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq passed secret information and documents to WikiLeaks revealing American crimes in its wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, was charged under that same law and found herself imprisoned from 2010 until 2017, when President Obama commuted her 35-year sentence. She was then sent back to jail again for refusing to testify in court against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. And he was, of course, the one outsider among the three of them but was indicted under that same Espionage Act. Having made public secret documents revealing a series of American nightmarish acts and crimes in its war on (and of) terror, he only recently avoided thanks to a British judge being extradited to the U.S. and possibly locked away for life (or death) here, though he remains incarcerated in Britain. Think of the three of them as, in a sense, prisoners of Washington's never-ending war on terror (the only equivalent to them being the accused al-Qaeda operatives locked away, seemingly forever and untried, in the American offshore prison set up in 2001 at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba).
Retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and TomDispatch regular William Astore makes an all too relevant point today that I've never seen made before. In the war on terror years, thanks to our never-ending conflicts and the staggering funding of the military-industrial complex that, even in this pandemic moment, accompanies them, not just those three figures but all of us have, in some fashion, become American POWs of a new kind. Tom
When Will America Free Itself From War?
"POWs Never Have A Nice Day." That sentiment was captured on a button a friend of mine wore for our fourth grade class photo in 1972. That prisoners of war could never have such a day was reinforced by the sad face on that button. Soon after, American POWs would indeed be released by their North Vietnamese captors as the American war in Vietnam ended. They came home the next year to a much-hyped heroes' welcome orchestrated by the administration of President Richard Nixon, but the government would never actually retire its POW/MIA (missing-in-action) flags. Today, almost half a century later, they continue to fly at federal installations, including the U.S. Capitol as it was breached and briefly besieged last week by a mob incited by this country's lame-duck president, ostensibly to honor all U.S. veterans who were either POWs or never returned because their bodies were never recovered.
Remembering the sacrifices of our veterans is fitting and proper; it's why we set aside Memorial Day in May and Veterans Day in November. In thinking about those POWs and the dark legacy of this country's conflicts since World War II, however, I've come to a realization. In the ensuing years, we Americans have all, in some sense, become prisoners of war. We're all part of a culture that continues to esteem war, embrace militarism, and devote more than half of federal discretionary spending to wars, weaponry, and the militarization of American culture. We live in a country that leads the world in the export of murderous munitions to the grimmest, most violent hotspots on the planet, enabling, for example, a genocidal conflict in Yemen, among other conflicts.
True, in a draft-less country, few enough Americans actually don a military uniform these days. As 2021 begins, most of us have never carried a military identification card that mentions the Geneva Convention on the proper and legal treatment of POWs, as I did when I wore a uniform long ago. So, when I say that all Americans are essentially POWs, I'm obviously using that acronym not in a legal or formal way, but in the colloquial sense of being captured by some phenomenon, held by it, subjected to it in a fashion that tends to restrict, if not eliminate, freedom of thought and action and so compromises this country's belief in sacred individual liberties. In this colloquial sense, it seems to me that all Americans have in some fashion become prisoners of war, even those few "prisoners" among us who have worked so bravely and tirelessly to resist the phenomenon.
Ask yourself this question: During a deadly pandemic, as the American death toll approaches 400,000 while still accelerating, what unites "our" representatives in Congress? What is the only act that draws wide and fervent bipartisan support, not to speak of a unique override of a Trump presidential veto in these last four years? It certainly isn't providing health care for all or giving struggling families checks for $2,000 to ensure that food will be on American tables or that millions of us won't be evicted from our homes in the middle of a pandemic. No, what unites "our" representatives is funding the military-industrial complex to the tune of $740.5 billion in fiscal year 2021 (though the real amount spent on what passes for "national security" each year regularly exceeds a trillion dollars). Still, that figure of $740.5 billion in itself is already higher than the combined military spending of the next 10 countries, including Russia and China as well as U.S. allies like France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
Not only that, but Congress added language to the latest defense bill that effectively blocked efforts by President Trump before he leaves office on January 20th to mandate the withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan (and some troops from Germany). Though it's doubtful he would have accomplished such goals anyway, given his irresolute nature, that Congress worked to block him tells you what you need to know about "our" representatives and their allegiance to the war complex.
That said, an irresolute Trump administration has been most resolute in just one area: selling advanced weaponry overseas. It's been rushing to export American-made bombs, missiles, and jets to the Middle East before turning over government efforts to shill for America's merchants of death to President Joe Biden and his crew of deskbound warriors.
Speaking of Biden, that he selected retired General Lloyd Austin III to be his secretary of defense sends the strongest possible signal of his own allegiance to the primacy of militarism and war in American culture. After all, upon retiring, General Austin promptly cashed in by joining the board of directors of United Technologies from which he received $1.4 million in "stock and other compensation" before it merged with giant weapons-maker Raytheon and he ended up on the board of that company. (He holds roughly $500,000 in Raytheon stock, a nice supplement to his six-figure yearly military pension.)
How better than selecting him as SecDef to ensure that the "military" and the "industrial" remain wedded in that famed complex? America's secretary of defense is, of course, supposed to be a civilian, someone who can exercise strong and independent oversight over America's ever-growing war complex, not a lifelong military officer and general to boot, as well as an obvious war profiteer.
War Is Peace
As Quincy Institute President Andrew Bacevich so aptly put it, "many Americans have made their peace with endless war." Within America's war culture, peace activists like Medea Benjamin and organizations like Veterans for Peace are seen as not just "radical," but genuinely aberrant. Meanwhile, an unquestioning acceptance of the fact that this country is now eternally at war across significant parts of the planet is considered normal, even respectable. Certainly, not something to put real time or thought into considering.
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