u.s. war culture

Specter of Infinite War

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From “Stories of Gods and Heroes” (1920) by Thomas Bulfinch with color illustrations drawn by Sybil Tawse. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I am among the apparent majority of American voters opposed to Donald Trump’s election and re-election. The majority wasn’t big enough in 2016 and may be too small in 2020 to overcome the negative effects of indirect election, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and foreign interference. As a citizen of a decidedly red state, I register my vote in full knowledge that it will not count in the final tally, since the presidential candidate with the most popular votes in Indiana, even if just a plurality, receives all eleven of the state’s electoral votes. Winner-takes-all rather than proportional allocation is the case in 48 of the 50 states, red or blue, big or small. It allows a candidate who loses the popular vote to win the office. If the electoral college was supposed to prevent the selection of a manifestly unqualified candidate, recent experience suggests that choosing the winner directly by popular vote might serve the country as well or even better. (more…)

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Ghostly Metaphor: War at a Bargain

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Creditor’s Ledger Payments Book detailing creditor payments between 1958 and 1977 by companies commissioning work from Holmes McDougall. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Like a ghost, the metaphors embedded in war talk go largely unnoticed. They are a specter haunting our speech and thought, just below the threshold of awareness. Calling attention to them can reveal an unexamined pretext for continuing to fight an interminable war.

Ghostly metaphors do not call attention to themselves as figures of speech. They operate furtively as though they are just ordinary words conveying literal meaning. With guard down, we allow them to shape the message and form our thoughts. When we draw on the literalized language of accounting to think about military matters, for example, we reason figuratively, drawing a tacit analogy between conducting business and fighting wars. (more…)

US Imperial Decline in Geopolitical Perspective

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Eurasia (orthographic projection). Credit: Keepscases / Wikimedia Commons

Historian Alfred McCoy has quickened my interest in the discourse of geopolitics applied to the waning state of US empire.  His book, In the Shadows of the American Century:  The Rise and Decline of US Global Power (Chicago:  Haymarket Books, 2017), makes a clear case that the end of global dominance is near.  The question is what kinds of disruption and what degree of violence the imperial fall will occasion.  What might a post-imperial era mean for Americans and others caught up in the transition?  From the perspective of geopolitics, McCoy sees a number of mostly disturbing possibilities.  His observations are valuable for indicating the challenges ahead.  (more…)

The Look of Empire

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U.S. Marine Corps Marines, from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, International Security Assistance Force, operate at Garmsir, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, April 29, 2008, during Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Alex C. Guerra) (Released)

The myth of American innocence and virtue forecloses any question about US imperialism or, at least, makes it hard to imagine that we are perpetrating harm on others for our own purposes and to our own advantage. We may be flawed, but the responsibility has fallen to us to fend off the barbarians and advance the cause of civilization. So the myth insists.

At a relatively abstract level, empire may not seem an obviously appropriate label for US engagement in world affairs. The idea of dominating extensive territories and peoples is unpalatable to most Americans and inconsistent with the nation’s self-image, as I’ve discussed in a previous post. So the myth persists.

Seen in more concrete terms, US imperialism is harder to ignore, to explain away, but also harder to confront. One response when confronted with the record of US imperialism and militarism is reflection-acknowledgement-correction. Another option is denial-repression-projection. So the myth resists. (more…)

The Tautology of War

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Yuliy Graf in Krokodil, 1953 no. 4, p. 8.

War culture is an insidious presence in the ordinary life of the imperial citizenry. The subtle entrapment in its daily rituals is a treacherous seduction of political will that sacrifices democracy on the altar of militarism.  The profane is endemic to politics as usual, the self-indulgence of a public alienated from its founding ideals.  Mundanity is a spiritual death knell just below the threshold of critical awareness.

The war mentality is a self-sustaining redundancy that renders critical reflection tiresome and seemingly futile.  The apparent inevitability of war induces acceptance and rationalization.  The public refuses to see its imperial reflection in the mirror.  The face of war is too ugly to unmask.  Better to suppress it.  Repression and projection are the psychological alternatives to critical reflection.  (more…)

Last of the Cold War Warriors

Senator John McCain, 1936-2018. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Even the tempests of Caliban’s island must pause at the passing of John McCain.

Writing about the three great Liberators of the Americas—Bolívar from Venezuela, San Martín from Río de La Plata, Hidalgo from México—José Martí once taught us:

Men cannot be more perfect than the sun. The sun burns with the same light with which it heats. The sun has spots. Ingrates talk only about its spots; grateful ones talk about the light.[1]

As a resident of Arizona, I have had occasion to witness John McCain’s services to his constituency with punctilious efficiency and graciousness. The tag of “maverick”—an unfortunate banality that often diminished the complexity of the man—has led commentators in the last few days to praise his memory as follows: “I disagreed with him on many issues, but …,” usually followed by a lengthy encomium. I will add my voice to this chorus of praise and condemnation. I will write, reducing “a person’s entire life to two or three scenes,” not only about my disagreements with John McCain, but also about the good that should not be interred with his bones.[2]

(more…)

Trump the Traitor

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Joint press conference of Russian President Vladimir Putin and President of the United States of America Donald Trump, 16 July 2018. (Credit: Kremlin.ru)

I count myself among the majority of Americans appalled by Donald Trump’s presidency. Even so, righteous talk of his treason is worrisome from my standpoint as a critic of US war culture. I worry that a desire to defeat Trump and Trumpism by attacking any point of vulnerability works, in the present case, to reinforce militarism, even if inadvertently.

“Trump the Traitor” pretty well sums up the mainstream reaction to Mr. Trump’s resistance to the investigation of Russian meddling in US elections and his affinity for Mr. Putin. That is the title of Michael A. Cohen’s July 16 commentary in the Boston Globe. (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…)

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…)