They Came for the Children

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British Women and Children Interned in a Japanese Prison Camp, Syme Road, Singapore, 1945, by Leslie Cole. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Somewhere in Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, the Irish Sage reminds us that when a stupid man does something he is ashamed of:  he always claims it is his duty to do so. In our miserable times, when a shameless man or woman does something dreadful that they enjoy, they always claim the law commands them to do so, even when no law exists to that effect. And when they engage in acts of perverted humanity, actions that can only arise from the diseased topographies of the soul, they claim—in an inversion of the classic serial killer excuse—that God made them do it! (more…)

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Democratic Counterpoint

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Detail from “Government.” Mural by Elihu Vedder. 1896. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Democracy is a tricky word, as noted at the end of Hunt the Devil. Whether we’ve too little of it or too much depends on what we mean by it.

To Walt Whitman, democracy meant not accepting anything except what everyone else can have their “counterpart of on the same terms” (Leaves of Grass). He could never get his fill of this kind of democracy, which resonated with overtones of equality among differences and resistance to privilege.

The standard definition of democracy refers to rule of the people primarily through their representatives, free and fair elections, and decisions by majority vote. Fair enough, so far as it goes, but lifeless.  (more…)

A Cloud of Imperial Hubris

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Illustration for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,“ engraving by Gustave Doré, 1866. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Tirelessly, Tom Englehardt works to raise our consciousness and tweak our conscience as citizens of an imperial war state. At TomDispatch.com, he offers a regular antidotal drip of posts by thoughtful and insightful critics of militarism. His newest book, A Nation Unmade by War, was released on May 22, warning that an empire made by war is also unmade by it.

A mere gesture to Englehardt’s observation is enough to underscore the country’s ominous trajectory.

We Americans do not like to think of ourselves as an empire. Nevertheless, Englehardt observes, America’s empire of chaos exists in a “cloud of hubris.” Hubris, you say? Yes, hubris—that condition of extreme pride and self-confidence, of outsized ambition that offends the gods, of overreach that leads to downfall.  (more…)

The Water Detail (Part 2 of 2)

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“Christ at the Column” by Caravaggio, oil on canvas, circa 1607. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The torture-house run by Gina Haspel in 2002 was code-named “Cat’s Eye” (Adam Goldman, New York Times, March 13, 2018), evoking images of the Orwellian poster that haunted Winston Smith in 1984 (“Big Brother is Watching You”) and of the Ministry of Love and Room 101.  At this site (before Haspel ran the prison), a Qaeda suspect by the name of Abu Zubaydah was water-boarded 83 times. A medical officer recorded the beginning sessions of Zubaydah’s “water-cure”:

“The sessions accelerated rapidly progressing quickly to the water board after large box, walling [slamming prisoner against wall], and small box periods. [Abu Zubaydah] seems very resistant to the water board. Longest time with the cloth over his face so far has been 17 seconds. This is sure to increase shortly. NO useful information so far…. He did vomit a couple of times during the water board with some beans and rice. It’s been 10 hours since he ate so this is surprising and disturbing. We plan to only feed Ensure for a while now. I’m head[ing] back for another water board session.[i]

A common thread in discussions of “enhanced interrogations” by our politicians is the widespread assumption that the times after 9/11 were a “dark period” in our history, an aberration, an exception to our usual humane treatment of prisoners of war, political prisoners and even common prisoners.

Nothing could be further from the truth. (more…)

The Water Detail (Part 1 of 2)

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“It’s not torture when U.S. forces are doing it…” by Carlos Latuff. (Credit: http://tales-of-iraq-war.blogspot.com/2008/01/its-not-torture-when-us-forces-are.html)

Now, this is the way we give them the water cure…. Lay them on their backs, a man standing on each hand and each foot, then put a round stick in the mouth and pour a pail of water in the mouth and nose, and if they don’t give up pour in another pail. They swell up like toads. I’ll tell you it is a terrible torture.

Letter by a U.S. soldier in the Philippines during the Filipino insurgency, 1899-1902.

Abject hypocrisy will bring about the collapse of the US Empire and the end of American democracy. Our tragic flaw was in resplendent, sartorial display last week: hypocrites accused each other of hypocrisy; crocodile tears were in abundance; psychological projections were the order of the day; pious, self-serving justifications were rampant; and all throughout the garish spectacle we could do no less than agree with Mark Twain and feel ashamed of the human race. (more…)

Democracy at Home, Imperialism Abroad

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“Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States” by Howard Chandler Christy, oil on canvas, 1940. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, as it relates to the military and war, specifies that:

The Congress shall have power To . . . provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States (Clause 1);

To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water (Clause 11);

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years (Clause 12);

To provide and maintain a Navy (Clause 13);

To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces (Clause 14);

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions (Clause 15);

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States . . . (Clause 16).

In short, the elected representatives of the people in Congress are constitutionally empowered on military matters and warfare, including the declaration of war. (more…)

Bogart and the Sierra Madre

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Treasure of Sierra Madre (film) – 1948 Movie still. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

(Excerpt from The Gospel of Scarface, Chapter 1, “Shakespearean Villains”)

In The Big Sleep (1946) we see in Bogart’s face, in Bogart’s actions, the performer always thinking, which translates into the detective thinking all the time, insistent on dissipating the shroud of mystery that confronts him. Bogart’s best performances reveal an abstraction, a state of mind and feeling made manifest by a created, if limited pattern of movement and sound.

The destruction of this thinking mind, the loss of control of this detective, the descent into the emotional and psychological chaos of the gangster and the outlaw—who now becomes a full-fledged monster—is what Bogart achieves in John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948). (more…)

Our Undemocratic War Machine

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Names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. (Credit: David Bjorgen)

A richer democratic culture should make the US less warlike, less inclined to endless imperial warfare. That is a basic premise of critiques of US war culture advanced here in Hunt the Devil.

A corollary to this premise is that America’s insufficiently democratic polity is overly susceptible to militarism.

A focus on the nation’s democratic health is especially relevant because, as Andrew Bacevich observes, “We are, or at least claim to be, a democratic republic in which all power ultimately derives from the people.”

Bacevich speaks as a retired US Army Colonel, Professor Emeritus in History at Boston University, and discerning commentator on US foreign policy when he says the American military system has failed in its purpose to defend the country and to bring about peace.  “Peace,” he observes, “has essentially vanished as a U.S. policy objective.”  (more…)

Democracy in Authoritarian Times

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American poet Walt Whitman, September 1872, Brooklyn, New York. (Credit: G. Frank E. Pearsall)

We promote a mythic sensibility in this forum on the assumption that, for good or ill, myth is ubiquitous in human affairs. Our goal is not to debunk myth. We expose it where it harms polity and sustains war, but we also wish to cultivate myth to redeem democracy and promote peaceful pursuits.    

A culture of positive peace requires a democratic ethos. Democracy is not simply a matter of voting. It is an attitude, an outlook, a way of life that entails managing our serious differences robustly and constructively. It is not to be confused with the present outbreak of authoritarian populism and demonizing rhetoric.

As E. J. Dionne Jr. maintains, populism per se is not a villain nor is it necessarily hostile to democracy. The kind of populism that maintains faith with democracy does so by challenging “ruling elites to face up to injustices that undermine free institutions.” It does not define “the people” narrowly or treat political opponents as enemies. (more…)

Crossing of the Rio Grande

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“Coronado sets out for the north” by Frederic Remington, oil painting, circa 1890-1900. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

(Donald Trump is hollering that “caravans of immigrants” are headed for the US border. He threatens to suspend both DACA and NAFTA in retaliation.

We know our president does not know very much, and does not care to know. But just so we remember who we are and where we came from, I offer the following from my Stories of the Conquest of the Kingdom of New Mexico. The passage is written with apologies to Ray Bradbury and his much admired The Martian Chronicles.) (more…)