u.s. war culture

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…)

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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…)

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…)

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…)

The Distraction of War

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Colossal statue of Mars (Pyrrhus). Marble, Roman artwork. (Photo credit: Jean-Pol Grandmont)

Charles M. Blow, in a New York Times column, expresses a worry that must have crossed millions of minds many a time.  It certainly troubles me.

Mr. Blow begins his column, “Donald Trump:  Man of War,” by quoting a tweet from the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, saying Donald Trump “is now set for war on 3 fronts: political vs Bob Mueller, economic vs China/others on trade, and actual vs. Iran and/or North Korea.  This is the most perilous moment in modern American history–and it has been largely brought about by ourselves, not by events.”

In agreeing with Haass’ assessment of our present peril, Blow makes explicit the dynamic at work.  Trump is getting desperate, which makes him dangerous.  He will harness the power of the presidency to save himself, which is why he is heading toward actual war.

Would Mr. Trump take the country to war to save his presidency?  This would not be the first time that starting a war has raised a president’s approval ratings.  (more…)

Two-Minute War

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Capt. Anthony Deiss, a public affairs officer with the 196th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, South Dakota Army National Guard, visits with Richard Engel, NBC news correspondent, 7 July 2010, at Camp Phoenix in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Credit: Sgt. Rebecca Linder, U.S. Army)

I have been watching network news regularly over the past year, since Mr. Trump assumed the presidency. I am not a big fan of network news. I default to newspapers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian for more complete coverage. But the evening television news, given its entertainment format, is a way of keeping up with popularized versions of daily events.

It is easy to be ensnared and stupefied by the evening news melodrama. While watching the NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt on March 15, I was suddenly alerted by my internal propaganda detector to a two-minute story about a previously secret skirmish in Syria between US special forces and Russian mercenaries. The incident had occurred a month earlier, on February 7, in an area of eastern Syria where ISIS forces recently had been driven off. Americans directly engaged Russians in combat for the first time in 50 years. The US officer in charge, Brigadier General Jonathan Braga, was concerned that the battle could lead to real war with Russia. (more…)

Trust Me

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Lenco BearCat G3 of the Ottawa Police Service, 9 September 2014. (Credit: Matti Blume)

‘Trust between law enforcement agencies and the people they protect and serve is essential in a democracy.”

“Armored vehicle use by police departments is not new but has recently become quite controversial due to some individuals[‘] misconceptions of the intended use of these vehicles. Unfortunately, some law enforcement agencies have used the vehicles in what, even to the greater law enforcement community, would seem to be, given what is known, an inappropriate fashion.”

Bloomington, Indiana Police Department, September 15, 2015

Coming soon to Bloomington, Indiana—the Lenco BearCat armored vehicle manufactured for police and military use. BearCat is an acronym for “Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck.”  (more…)

Enough? Playing with Nuclear Fire

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North Korea’s ballistic missile – North Korea Victory Day – 26 July 2013. (Credit: Stefan Krasowski)

The Editorial Board of the New York Times hit the nail on the head of the North Korean missile crisis in its editorial of February 1, 2018, “Playing with Fire and Fury on North Korea.” After reviewing recent developments that suggest Trump is inclined to risk what is likely to be a devastating war with North Korea, the Board ends its editorial with perspectival flourish:

The United States has been at war continuously since the attacks of Sept. 11 and now has just over 240,000 active-duty and reserve troops in at least 172 countries and territories. Enough.

Indeed, one wonders if there can ever be enough in an ongoing sixteen-year-old forever war spanning the globe. (more…)

Patriotic Animus

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ARLINGTON, Texas (Nov. 13, 2011) Sailors assigned to Navy Recruiting District Dallas hold a giant American Flag on the field at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner at the beginning of a Dallas Cowboys home game against the Buffalo Bills. The Dallas Cowboys Football Club honored all five branches of the armed forces during pre-game and halftime ceremonies. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael Tackitt/Released)

The forever war on terrorism, to which the country has become well accustomed, permeates US public culture. Militarism—the predominance of military virtues and ideals, the heavy investment in military capabilities, and the aggressive use of the military to advance national interests—is sanctioned routinely in political rituals large and small.

Tune in to a professional football game, for instance, to see opening ceremonies that feature a flag the size of the playing field, a military color guard, and a soloist in uniform singing the national anthem, culminating in a flyover by jet fighters.  Along the sidelines, head coaches, their staffs, and players wear military camouflage caps and jackets. And so it goes, on and on.  (more…)

Reframing the Nuclear Crisis

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The nuclear football. (Credit: Jamie Chung / Smithsonian Institute Magazine)

Retired Admiral James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and now Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said on the second day of this new year that the US is closer to a “full-on war” with North Korea than at any time before in his four-decade career.  The chance of war, he thinks, is about 20%, which means there is still a 70-80% chance that diplomacy can work out the nuclear crisis.  

Is this good news or bad?  Maybe both.   (more…)