u.s. war culture

Militant Peace

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Pyongyang, North Korea, 2015. (Credit: Uwe Brodrecht)

Cup of coffee in hand, reading my morning newspaper, I feel a sudden jolt. No, not a jolt from the caffeine. It is the story that brings me up short. The story is about a current revival of fear over the possibility of World War III. That topic draws my attention to the story, but it is not the cause for my surprise or the reason to stop what I am doing. I’ve been worrying about war for as long as I can remember. What brings me up short is a bolt-from-the-blue reminder that for some people, maybe most of my fellow citizens, US militarism is a force for peace, which is not too far removed from the mythic sensibility of war as an angel of redemption.

Sometimes it takes an actual example, a singular statement in ordinary circumstances, to recognize an unspoken assumption and make a disembodied abstraction abruptly palpable. It is one thing to think abstractly that we live and die by the myths that constitute us and shape our sense of reality. It is quite different to feel the force of that truism. That difference is what Rick Hampson’s story in USA TODAY brought home to me. (more…)

Primer for the Trump Apocalypse: Practical Business Men

Schottische Scharfschützen auf Lauer (April 1918).

Scottish snipers in World War I, April 1918. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Heartbreak House is not merely the name of a play,” wrote George Barnard Shaw in the preface to his masterpiece. “It is cultured, leisured Europe before the war.” The play was neither published nor performed until after the cessation of hostilities in World War I. Shaw’s given reasons are clear:

War cannot bear the terrible castigation of comedy, the ruthless light of laughter that glares on the stage. When men are heroically dying for their country, it is not the time to shew [sic] their lovers and wives and fathers and mothers how they are being sacrificed to the blunders of boobies, the cupidity of capitalists, the ambition of conquerors, the electioneering of demagogues, the Pharisaism of patriots, the lusts and lies and rancors and bloodthirsts that love war because it opens their prison doors, and sets them in the thrones of power and popularity. [1]

Soon after WWI, while “the earth [was] still bursting with the dead bodies of the victors,” Shaw recounted the history of the war “not in the field, but at home,” in one of his most scornful sallies against war: “Thus were the firstborn of Heartbreak House smitten; and the young, the innocent, the hopeful expiated the folly and worthlessness of their elders.”

Re-reading the preface to Heartbreak House today (“Heartbreak House and Horseback Hall”) one is besieged by the eerie sensation produced by prophecy, by the startling notion that history may repeat itself once again, but in reverse order. (more…)

Escape

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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…)

Warmongering

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Caricature of Steve Bannon. (Credit: DonkeyHotey / Wikimedia Commons)

“Our big belief, one of our central organizing principles [at Breitbart] is that we are at war.”

November 17, 2015

“We’re in a war. We’re clearly going into, I think, a major shooting war in the Middle East, again.”

November 27, 2015

“It’s war. It’s war. Every day, we put up America’s at war. America’s at War. We’re at war.”

December 14, 2015

Steve Bannon

A warmonger, by definition, is someone who promotes war—urges it, stirs it up. Warmongering is especially foreboding when it comes from a person who is the Commander-in-Chief’s political advisor, chief strategist, senior counsel, and foreign policy guru. Philip Rucker, the Washington Post’s White House Bureau Chief, observes that, “Trump considers Bannon a savant and is allowing him to shape his presidency and especially his foreign policy.”[i] (more…)

Western Worldview: A Latent War Myth

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“St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre,” oil on panel, by François Dubois, circa 1572-84. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I recently came across a striking depiction of the dominant Western worldview, which underlies our conventional way of thinking about violence, especially our assumption that war is natural and inevitable. It is our present-day mythos—our deeply embedded conception of humanity—rendered so starkly that it startles one momentarily into a state of recognition.

I found this remarkable depiction in a book about the history and vitality of peace movements, specifically a chapter on psychology and peace. The authors, Marc Pilisuk and Mitch Hall, observe that we live in a world we have created, both a physical world we have significantly changed and “a symbolic world of mental images that define what we assume to be true.” Our prevailing myths are our most comprehensive symbols for identifying our place and purpose in life. They constitute social and political entities, such as nation-states, that “exist only because we believe they are real,” that is, “because we invest them with sovereign powers and sacred attachments” and “willingly kill or die for them.”[i] (more…)

The Good War

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Historian Howard Zinn speaking in 2009. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Howard Zinn was a bombardier in World War II. He flew B-17 missions over Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. He didn’t like war, but he joined in the fight against Fascism because he believed this war was “a people’s war, a war against the unspeakable brutality of Fascism.” Unlike other wars, this war “was not for profit or empire”:

What could be more justifiable than a war against Fascism, which was ruthlessly crushing dissent at home, and taking over other countries, while proclaiming theories of racial supremacy and promoting a spirit of nationalist arrogance. When Japan, which was committing atrocities in China, allied itself to Italy and Germany, and then attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, it seemed to be clear—it was the democratic countries against the Fascist countries.[i]

Indeed, World War II is the national archetype of the good war, the just war, the war for democracy and liberty. US wars have been infused ever since with the heroic spirit of its just cause.

Based on his experience and then on his research as a professional historian, Zinn changed his mind about World War II and war in general. His reassessment is worth reflecting upon since, as he put the matter, World War II is the supreme test of whether there is such a thing as a just war.[ii] (more…)

Puerto Rico: Dance Under the Storm (Part III: The Gimmick)

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USS Iowa (BB-61) fires a full broadside of her nine 16″/50 and six 5″/38 guns during a target exercise near Vieques Island, Puerto Rico. (Credit: U.S. Dept. of Defense)

The “gimmick,” Juan Manuel García Passalacqua (aide to two Puerto Rican governors during the 1960s) wrote in a newspaper column over a decade ago, was as follows:

To produce jobs here so that our population could be kept domesticated to prevent social disorder to protect law and order in the archipelago that was essentially and only a very important naval and military base for the United States. We all ended that in Vieques.[i]

Passalacqua was warning of economic disaster given the impending end of Section 936 of the Internal Revenue Code, which gave “mainland United States companies an exemption from Federal taxes on income earned in Puerto Rico, whether it comes from operations or interest on local bank deposits.” In the aftermath of the closing of the naval artillery range in the small contiguous island of Vieques, and of the closing of the impressive Roosevelt Roads naval base, Passalacqua relayed the conclusion of several economic reports from the US mainland: “Tax exemptions to multinational corporations are not needed anymore” (The San Juan Star, July 9, 2006). (more…)

Puerto Rico: Dance Under the Storm (Part II: Borinqueneers)

Painting depiction of the U.S. 65th Infantry Regiment's bayonet charge against a Chinese division during the Korean War, by Dominic D'Andrea, 1992. (Credit: U.S. Dept. of Defense)

Painting depiction of the U.S. 65th Infantry Regiment’s bayonet charge against a Chinese division during the Korean War, by Dominic D’Andrea, 1992. (Credit: U.S. Dept. of Defense)

The illustration pictures the (all Puerto Rican) 65th Infantry Regiment in action. In 2014, President Barack Obama presented the Congressional Gold Medal to the fabled “Borinqueneers” in recognition of their military service in Korea (the word Borinquen derives from the ancient Taíno name for the island).

In The Docile Puerto Rican and Other Essays 1953-1971, René Marqués once argued:

We are docile. If we were not, Puerto Rico would have obtained its national sovereignty in the 19th century…. Puerto Ricans can be antisocial, defiant, non-conformist occasionally and even heroic as individuals in some cases, but we are certainly docile as a people.[1]

History belies such a categorical judgment by one of Puerto Rico’s greatest playwrights. From the first Taíno insurrection by Agueybana el Bravo (the Brave) in 1511; to the repulsion of repeated British and Danish invasions under the Spanish colony; to the slave rebellions of the 19th century; to the legendary insurrection against Spanish rule in 1865 known as the “Grito de Lares”; to the Puerto Rican participation in the Cuban Wars of Independence in 1895; in all conflicts Puerto Ricans have demonstrated the same fighting spirit that animated the Borinqueneers during the Korean War. (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…)

Death of Sitting Bull

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Sitting Bull. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In these days of primaries and tawdry rhetoric by presidential candidates, it would be good to evoke the memory of the great orator and medicine man of the Lakota Sioux.

This is how Arthur Kopit, in his play Indians, painted the portrait of Sitting Bull:

I am here by the will of the Great Spirits, and by their will I am a chief. My heart is red and sweet, and I know it is sweet, for whatever I pass near tries to touch me with its tongue, as the bear tastes honey and the green leaves seek the sky. If the Great Spirits have chosen anyone to be leader of their country, know that it is not the Great Father, it is myself.

As we have chronicled in our book Hunt the Devil (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015), Sitting Bull’s fiery rhetoric, the Plains Indians victory at Little Big Horn, and the Ghost Dance Movement of the late 19th century turned Sitting Bull into the devil we seek to destroy in every war—the evil leader of whichever people we target as our enemy. The death of Sitting Bull would be repeated, at the dawn of the 21st century, in the termination of an Islamic spiritual leader who had inspired — just like Sitting Bull — heinous crimes against the United States.[i] (more…)