Tom Engelhardt

Escape

The_Pentagon_January_2008

The Pentagon, 12 January 2008. (Credit: David B. Gleason)

George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and now Donald Trump—all of whom grew up on Hollywood’s spectacle of America winning wars ad infinitum and none of whom fought in an actual war—“managed to remain quite deeply embedded in centuries of triumphalist frontier mythology.”

We’re still stuck in the fantasy of “an American world of forever war.”

Tom Engelhardt, “Rebecca Gordon, War Without End,” March 7, 2017

 

I was struck, while reading one of Peter Zhang’s exploratory essays and thinking about US war culture, by the metaphor of escape.[i] Escape is just one figure in Zhang’s extended comparison of Deleuze to Zen. The spirit of the essay’s multiple analogies is heuristic, especially for escaping debilitating conventions of political culture. (more…)

Failed Empire

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(Credit: Veterans for Peace)

Is the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency the sign of a failed empire?

“Make America Great Again” is a campaign slogan that seems to acknowledge the country’s fall from grace. Tom Engelhardt certainly thinks that’s the case, as we noted in a previous Hunt the Devil post. In Engelhardt’s words, Trump is “our first declinist candidate for president.”

Trump’s victory is a convoluted concession that world dominion has been a ruinous pursuit. Of course, he promises to recover the country’s greatness by reinvesting in its military might, as if the US military is not already rich and mighty. But, for now, the premise stands: The US is no longer great.

What happened to bring down the empire, or at least the country’s collective faith in it? (more…)

Imperial Decline

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“Keying Up” – The Court Jester, oil on canvas, by William Merritt Chase, 1875. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Tom Engelhardt is an uncommonly keen observer of the imperial globe. His blog, TomDispatch.com, points critically at what mainstream media ignore or condone. The blog functions as an “antidote” to how the news typically is reported. He’s been at it since the beginning of the global war on terror. Before that, he wrote insightfully on US war culture in The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (Basic Books, 1995). Now he sees signs of the beginning of the end of US empire.

Engelhardt sees the decline of American imperial power reflected in the words of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign theme: “Make America Great Again!” The word “again” is revealing. Rhetoric makes and reflects political culture.

In the 1950s, US wealth and power were “too self-evident for presidents to cite, hail, or praise.” Their political vocabulary was devoid of superlatives such as “greatest,” “exceptional,” and “indispensible.” After Vietnam, though, things went the way of Rambo. (more…)

Trump and the Trickster

Donald Trump Laconia Rally, Laconia, NH on July 16, 2015. (Credit:  Michael Vadon / Wikimedia Commons)

Donald Trump Laconia Rally, Laconia, NH on July 16, 2015. (Credit: Michael Vadon / Wikimedia Commons)

The attitude of war is so deeply ingrained in US political culture that rhetorical combativeness itself is considered to be praiseworthy. Donald Trump is an icon of combativeness. His run for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination is downright militaristic. He boasts that he is the “most militaristic guy ever.” To back it up, he labels China an “enemy,” who is “destroying your children’s and grandchildren’s future,” and he professes his love for America by saying that “when you love something, you protect it passionately—fiercely, even.”

War culture has progressed to the point, as Tom Engelhardt notes, that there is no longer a significant American antiwar movement. It has been demobilized in the endless war on terrorism: “Since 9/11, this country has engaged in a military-first foreign policy across much of the Greater Middle East and northern Africa, launching an unending string of failed wars, conflicts, raids, kidnappings, acts of torture, and drone assassination programs.” The war state has been privatized, the general public has been removed from the actual fighting, and the citizenry has been reduced to a “surveilled and protected populace.” Americans, who have been “inoculated . . . against serious protest,” are content to tune in to a spectacle of slaughter. “Don’t consider it a fluke,” Engelhardt says, “that the war culture hero of the period—on the bestseller lists and in Hollywood—was an American sniper.” (more…)

Too Bad to be True

Statue of Liberty. (Credit: Derek Jensen)

Statue of Liberty. (Credit: Derek Jensen)

One nasty attribute of U.S. exceptionalism in this era of perpetual war is the endless exemptions America gives itself from the constraints of international law.

As historian Alfred McCoy observes, the U.S. routinely defies the very rules it helped to write for an international community of nations governed by law. The sum of exceptions includes “endless incarceration, extrajudicial killing, pervasive surveillance, drone strikes in defiance of national boundaries, torture on demand, and immunity for all of the above on the grounds of state secrecy.” Why do Americans so seldom perceive this lawbreaking record as jarring and disconcerting? (more…)

Prosaic Empire

Aerial view of the Washington Monument with the White House in the background.  DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Andy Dunaway. (RELEASED)

Aerial view of the Washington Monument with the White House in the background. DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Andy Dunaway. (RELEASED)

Tom Englehardt is a persistent and perceptive critic of the war state. He closely monitors its operation and vigilantly critiques its rationalizations. His well-informed insights pierce the stupor of U.S. militarism.

So what does Englehardt mean when he writes about “Washington’s Walking Dead”?

He means: “when it comes to innovative responses to problems, our political system seems particularly airless right now”; “there are only two operative words in twenty-first-century Washington: more and war”; constant “chatter” about “security, safety, intelligence, and war” reveal why the nation’s capital is a “dead zone in terms of new ideas or ways of acting in our world.”

A lack of political imagination is discernible in the stale language of American empire. Facile and prosaic discourse signals a condition of decline in the curve of history. (more…)

A Veteran’s Reflection

Former Arizona Cardinals football player Pat Tillman, is shown in a June 2003 file photo, released by Photography Plus.  (AP Photo/Photography Plus via Williamson Stealth Media Solutions, FILE)

Former Arizona Cardinals football player Pat Tillman, is shown in a June 2003 file photo, released by Photography Plus. (AP Photo/Photography Plus via Williamson Stealth Media Solutions, FILE)

The ethos of the nation—its character, guiding beliefs, and moral sentiments—is deeply invested in the persona of the soldier. This is especially true of the United States today. The soldier signifies patriotism, courage, sacrifice, and faith in the nation’s sacred mission.

Public rituals in support of the troops are abundant. They permeate popular culture and political discourse. The uniformed soldier is routinely featured at sporting events large and small. Military induction ceremonies are performed at half time. The president’s annual state-of-the-union speech spotlights military heroes. We are reconstituted as a people in the image of the warrior on such occasions. We become one people in mind and spirit. (more…)

The Ebola War

Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby describes the latest Defense Department developments in the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and deployments to Africa to help contain the Ebola crisis during a press briefing at the Pentagon, Oct. 3, 2014. (DoD photo by Glenn Fawcett)

Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby describes the latest Defense Department developments in the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and deployments to Africa to help contain the Ebola crisis during a press briefing at the Pentagon, Oct. 3, 2014. (DoD photo by Glenn Fawcett)

Linguistic habits make strange thoughts seem normal. When we go to the grocery store, we shop for cuts of meat, not pieces of flesh. We’re not perverse flesh eaters.

Likewise, we are not warmongers. Yet, language gives us away from time to time, if we take notice, which is rare.   We routinely structure our thoughts about the world with fighting words.   Couples don’t argue; they fight. We declare war on poverty, on crime, on illegal drugs, on just about any problem that comes to our attention. Our police forces are militarized.

9/11 triggered the ubiquitous war on terror. Hijacking commercial airplanes and flying them into buildings wasn’t just a heinous crime. Even if it were, we fight wars on crime. After 9/11—but really well before—everything was a national security issue. President Bush spoke not only about homeland security but also border security, economic security, health security, retirement security, energy security, and more. There is no conceptual limit to the purview of the National Security Agency. NSA might monitor anyone saying anything.

So we’re not surprised when our government responds to a rogue virus as if it is an invading army. (more…)

A Force for Good

Putin shakes hand with Modi at the 6th BRICS summit. BRICS is an acronym for the economic association of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.  The recently established BRICS bank is an alternative to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. (Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office of the Russian Federation)

Putin shakes hand with Modi at the 6th BRICS summit. BRICS is an acronym for the economic association of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. The recently established BRICS bank is an alternative to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. (Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office of the Russian Federation)

Whether or not the rhetoric is sincere, it aims to persuade us that our country is on the side of the angels. Stories to the contrary are ignored or forgotten. The simple but effective mechanism for suppressing the nation’s guilty conscience is to concoct a devil figure. If our enemy is evil, then we are a force for good. This self-serving logic is regularly recycled. It keeps bad memories in check whenever or wherever they might pop up. It works like a vaccination to immunize us from a dreaded disease. (more…)