war culture

The Low-Bar Trope

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Democratic Primary Debate Participants, 27 June 2019: Michael Bennet, Joseph Biden, Peter Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, John Hickenlooper, Bernard Sanders, Eric Swalwell, Marianne Williamson, Andrew Yang. (Credit: DonkeyHotey / Wikimedia Commons)

You have heard it said before. I’ve said it myself. As a colleague recently grumbled: “The bar is low. All I want is a return to the rule of law.”

Indeed, the bar is set low for the 2020 presidential election if it means Democrats should nominate the person most likely to defeat Trump, that candidates competing for the nomination should do no harm to one another in the primaries, and that they and their supporters should rally behind the Party’s eventual nominee on the assumption that winning the election will return the nation to the status quo ante.

Is a reset enough? Is restoring the state of affairs as it existed before Trump’s presidency the right goal and the likeliest way to win the election? (more…)

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Obliteration

Mushroom cloud of ‘Gadget’ over Trinity, seconds after detonation, 1945. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In these hyperbolic times, we should pause occasionally to reflect on the casual use of dangerous language.  President Trump’s choice of the word “obliteration” in the present context of tensions with Iran is a case in point.  It is a term fraught with deadly implications, especially in the midst of a heated dispute between adversaries.  That, by itself, is worrisome, even if it were an isolated instance of inflammatory language.  The fact that it is characteristic of this president is all the more disquieting.  “Obliteration” reflects an ingrained pattern—the rhetorical mannerism of his volatile disposition.  Beyond that, it invokes a cultural fantasy of nuclear extermination. (more…)

Playing Chicken

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ARABIAN SEA (March 6, 2012) The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) and the British Royal Navy Duke-class frigate HMS Westminster (F 237) transit the Arabian Sea. Abraham Lincoln is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility conducting maritime security operations, theater security cooperation efforts and support missions as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jerine Lee/Released) 120306-N-QN361-034

We’ve all seen video clips in recent news reports showing the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group (with a B52 bomber task force) dispatched to Iran for the purpose of sending a message.  It is an unsettling sight.  As a worried friend said to me last Tuesday morning, “I hope Trump doesn’t get us into a war with Iran.”

Yes, this is a worrisome development, not just because a war with Iran could happen on purpose (with war hawks John Bolton and Mike Pompeo wielding influence within an unstable administration), but also because it could happen accidentally.  The game the President is playing is commonly called Chicken. (more…)

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…)

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…)

Soul of the Republic

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Exhibition at the Grand Palace. “Me, Augustus, Emperor of Rome” (19 March 2014-13 July 2014) Around 44 BC. Julius Caesar, white marble. (Credit: Gautier Poupeau)

Consider for a moment that the way we communicate is an expression of who we are or are becoming. Do we communicate as a democratic people, as citizens of a republic, and/or as subjects of an empire—perhaps increasingly less as democratic citizens and more as imperial subjects, marking the impending loss of the soul of the republic?

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Imperial Presidency chronicled the systematic growth of presidential power since the founding of the republic, a trend that has increased since the book’s publication in 1973. Jeffrey Tulis and his colleagues followed suit in 1981 and 1987 with a discussion of the rise of the rhetorical presidency and its deleterious effects on republican government.[1] Demagoguery and government by mood, in Tulis’s view, mark rhetoric as a degraded form of political communication that undermines the interests of the public and destabilizes the political system. Of course, not all rhetoric is demagogic, but rule by presidential mass persuasion that bypasses the deliberative function of the Congress, by this estimation, erodes the constitution of the republic. While I have criticized the elitism of the rhetorical presidency thesis in general terms,[2] the present degraded state of presidential rhetoric clearly is deleterious to the prospects of representative democracy and the future of the republic.

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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]

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