Bush War I: Just Another War Or Was It the Beginning of the Endless War?

This is the sixth installment in a series on issues of War or Peace. There will only be two more installments. I promise.


I’m trying to gain some perspective on a century and a half of wars and empire-building by the United States. I think I have a thesis which is rather simple, so please hear me out.

The Persian Gulf War, what I will call Bush War I for simplicity sake, was not a war at all but rather the beginning of permanent war. Everything since is not a series of separate events but a continuation of what is now a normal state of affairs. It is the modus operandi of the empire; it’s what keeps the business running, the oil in the machine, if you will. It is the state religion and an integral part of our culture and so-called “civilized society.”

That quick and nasty little war that George Bush the First and all his henchmen brought us, the war that most Americans probably forgot about years ago, was in fact the most successful one of all. It was successful because it set the stage and opened the door to the ultimate objective: endless war to sustain the empire.

Remember Vietnam? Probably one of the most savage and senseless wars in human history, up to that point. So what was the one good thing to come out of that war, which took down a president and utterly destroyed an entire country in Southeast Asia? It was something called the Vietnam Syndrome.

No, it’s not a virus to be defeated with a dose of antibiotics. It’s the name that was given by the principalities and powers to the natural aversion of humans to military force, foreign intervention and war. It’s the natural predisposition that war should be avoided at all cost, except for the most justifiable of causes, and that there should be reasonable limits to national power. In other words, it was a disease that had crept into the American psyche and needed to be vanquished.

After Bush War I came Clinton’s war, which was war-by-another-name, but nearly as deadly and disastrous. And that flowed right into Bush War II, where that nasty syndrome seemed to rear its ugly head again for a moment. But then came the relief of the Obama years, when the liberals all agreed that war, state-sponsored assassination and repression were fine as long as there was a black face at the helm of the imperial ship of state.

My thesis is that Bush War I was truly unique: the war that would make all things possible (except peace). All wars are cruel and, Catholic doctrine aside, none are “just.” But this war went beyond cruelty to sadism and barbarism. Violence and barbarism were not means to an end, but the end itself.

It was the institutionalization of terror. The charge could be made that it was a pointless war, except that the war itself was the point.

It was probably the most hypocritical of wars in a long history of ignominious US foreign policy in which hypocrisy has always played a major role. Last but not least, this sordid little war was the one where our exalted “free press” officially became part of the machinery of death. Moving forward, we would have our “smart” weapons and a dumb and drugged media to do the bidding of the principalities and powers. No more speaking truth to power. The media would partner with those in power in speaking lies to the public.

So why was there a war? What was the motivation, and why did Bush and his cronies rush to war before peace had a chance to break out?

Les Aspin, a Wisconsin Congressman who was head of the House Armed Services Committee, said the goal was to determine “whether we can or cannot still call on force to achieve our goals abroad.” A former Strategic Air Command (SAC) general commented that the war was necessary to give “a demonstration to the world” of “the real capability of some weapons that a lot of us have been working on for decades.” The Wall Street Journal said the purpose of the war was to let “America, and above all its elite, recover a sense of self-confidence and self-worth.”

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, hardly a left-wing radical, said the war “is about making money, about protecting governments loyal to America and punishing those which are not, and about who will set the price of oil.”

Diana Johnstone, in In These Times, may have said it best: “This is a war to prove that war works, that war is possible, that war is the future. It is the triumph of Henry Kissinger’s life work: to enable the US to overcome the inhibitions of nuclear deterrence and take up war as a normal instrument of foreign policy. It is the expression of our technological culture in which mastery of inert objects–missiles, electronic guidance systems, satellites–is so overwhelming that it allows our leaders to dispense altogether with the less quantifiable and more subtle science of human understanding.”

So yes, the war was a success. It was a feel-good pill for the wealthy and powerful. It was a show of force. It was an obscene display of “smart” new weapons and war technology and a beguiling invitation to Mideast countries to gorge themselves at the US arms bazaar.

What was the price? Only history can judge. Was it worth it? It depends on where you sit. If you happen to sit in the White House or a palace in Saudi Arabia, the answer is probably yes.

The US air campaign over Iraq and Kuwait was the most intensive, violent and sustained bombardment in human history.

The US dropped 82,000 tons of bombs during its six-week campaign. According to the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the bombs measured ten times the explosive power of all the bombs dropped on Japan in the final 14 months of World War II.

How many people died in the war? The US wasn’t saying. General Norman Schwarzkopf, in charge of the slaughter, was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying: “I have absolutely no idea what the Iraqi casualties [are], and I tell you, if I have anything to say about it, we’re never going to get into the body-counting business.” But estimates from various sources placed the total number of Iraqi troops killed at 100,000 to 200,000. Fewer than 150 Americans lost their lives.

This was just the kind of war the US needed: quick, clean and brutal. As an article in The Progressive a couple months after the war pointed out, the government and its think tanks had determined, in a 1984 study, that the citizenry still had a tendency to “fear and resist involvement that may draw US forces into another foreign conflict.” (The syndrome.)

In wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, and proxy wars in Nicaragua, Angola, Cambodia and elsewhere, the US used mass assassination and other tactics to dispose of a third of a million people with only about 200 American casualties. Then they  perfected the formula with the invasions of Grenada and Panama: paint the enemy as evil, strike with disproportionate force, and get the killing done before Americans die.

In my file on Bush War I, I came across two essays by Edward Said, the Columbia University professor who died in 2003. I think they are worth quoting at length for their perspective and their prophetic nature. In the first, published in The Christian Science Monitor in August, 1990, Said wrote:

“Saddam is a deeply unattractive, indeed revoltingly tough and callous leader, who has suppressed personal freedoms, subjected his gifted and hard-working people to unimaginable rigors, and harassed and invaded his neighbors. But he is neither mad nor, I would suggest, an unexpected figure to emerge out of the desolation that has characterized recent Arab history. He is admired today by many Arabs who deplore his methods, but who say the world is essentially dominated by powers who invade, grab land, and attempt to change governments.

Turkey seized part of Cyprus a few years ago, the Russians invaded Afghanistan, the US has bombed or invaded Grenada, Libya, and only a matter of months ago, Panama, because it suited its interests, as defined by the president. Above all, every Arab is agonizingly aware that because of an American green light the Israeli army invaded Lebanon, killed 20,000 people, attempted to destroy the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and set up a basically puppet government.

The US did not apply sanctions to Israel, and continues to subsidize the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights, and part of South Lebanon. At the UN, the US blocked any censure of Israel; together the two countries defied the entire world, with the US permitting only resolutions to pass that “regretted” the “violence on both sides,” a phrase both cynical and insulting. The habitual American leniency toward Israel confirms an indecent double standard …

We should not therefore underestimate Saddam’s appeal to Arabs who feel that nothing less than the future of Arab civilization is at stake. Historically opposed by the West, regarded with contempt and through a racist optic that considers Arabs mainly as greasy oil-suppliers, terrorists, or camel-jockeys, a resurgent Arab nationalism has taken heart from the resistance embodied in the Palestinian intifadah, the various Islamic groupings, and the Iraqi president …

Governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps Jordan are likely to recover badly, if at all, from the US rush to military reaction. Immense economic and ecological changes unforeseen in their scope will, I think, radically change the face of the whole Middle East. And I greatly fear that Arab nationalist hopes and cultural assertions will yet again be re-channeled into xenophobia, religious revivalism, and the politics of hostility and revenge.

No Arab can excuse today’s ghastly spectacle of corrupt or unjust regimes, massive social and economic inequities, horrendously backward educational and cultural establishments, overblown security apparatuses and abrogated democratic freedoms. But I submit, the Western–and especially the American–failure to draw out the Arabs in a real dialogue, to take their hopes and fears seriously, has contributed to much of what is unattractive in the Arab world.”


Saddam Hussein

An opinion piece published in the New York Times five months later, on January 11, 1991, six days before the US air offensive began, was titled A Tragic Convergence. What follows are a few paragraphs from that essay:

“Clearly, the major reason for the American buildup and the increasing likelihood of war is that the US still believes in its right to project its power where it pleases, for its own ends, wrapped in its own “higher” morality and principles.

This is an imperialist ideology. In the new world now dominated by one superpower, US policymakers feel an urgent need to confront challenges to American interests and, if necessary, to rout the challengers.

It is terrifying to watch Iraq now being readied for mass destruction. First its leader is transformed into the personification of evil, and our new allies “the embodiment of virtue.” Then Iraq’s people and society are reduced to “military assets” in a demonized “Islamic jihad.”

Finally, after some arbitrary deadline has expired, Iraqi society is declared a virtual nonentity, with cities to be smashed from great distances and heights, agriculture and industry to be torched, roads and bridges to be reduced to rubble. In all this, Western ignorance of Arab and Islamic culture becomes a useful mode of warfare: The enemy is easily dehumanized and readied for the final blow …

Who has given the US the right to project its power while simultaneously proclaiming its higher purpose and superior wisdom? The US is in fact repeating the practices employed by the British and French in the 19th Century. The big differences are that Washington today is capable of much greater destruction, and it refuses to admit that it is engaged in the business of empire …

The Gulf is not merely an empty desert with a large pool of “our” oil underneath and a whole bunch of sheiks, terrorists or Hitlers on top. It is a place with actual peoples, traditions and societies whose aspirations and values have to be viewed as having merit independent of our needs and attitudes …

So overbearing have Arab rulers become that the most grotesque situations are tolerated … No Arab president or king is accountable to his people; this is just as true of Saddam Hussein as of the others.

The bureaucracies and the secret police rule more or less unchallenged although they are universally hated and feared. Only some of this can be blamed on imperialism or Zionism for, after all, it was the Arab states that deserted the Palestinian intifada. There is no Arab country today that can adequately defend itself or its borders, yet national security arguments are used to justify gigantically large outlays of money for imported weapons, standing armies and praetorian guards …

The tragedy, then, is that there is a convergence between an imperialist American will to war against an upstart third world state and an almost equally remorseless Arab propensity to violence and extremism that began with Iraq’s aggression against Kuwait and continues in the Iraqi-Kuwaiti-Saudi-Egyptian drive to war.

A further irony is that this convergence is beginning to look like a conflict between Islam and the West, those two always convenient rubrics. A sobering look at the concretely terrible consequences of a war that seems ever more likely might set a different course–less imperious and dreary–for Americans and Arabs alike. There can be no real winner in this war, despite braggadocio and threats. It must not begin at all.”

Writing in New Statesman and Society, also in August, 1990, Eqbal Ahmad referred to the US’s “splendid affliction with the Vietnam Syndrome” and its subsequent recovery from the disease. “Their responses to the latest crisis in the Middle East suggest that Congress and the media have decisively overcome the nascent habit of casting critical eyes at flexed American muscles,” he commented.

Ahmad, who died in 1999, was a Pakistani writer, lecturer, historian and activist who studied and taught at Princeton and other universities in the United States. For ten years he was a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.  In 1971, he was indicted along with anti-war priest Phillip Berrigan and other militant priests, nuns, teachers and students on federal charges of conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger in a plot to end the bombing of Southeast Asia. (The jury declared a mistrial.)

“In order … to establish the uniqueness of Iraq’s aggression in Kuwait,” Ahmad wrote, “the press has repeatedly stated that in the contemporary period no Arab country has invaded another. The statement obscures the more relevant fact that in recent decades invasions and annexations have been routinely carried out in the Middle East. Until it reacted to the Iraqi adventure, the United States had aided and condoned them all.”

Ahmad went on to point out that the United Nations was widely praised in the US for condemning Iraq and imposing sanctions. But he reminded readers that “in 1982 similar resolutions against Israel’s immensely more destructive invasion of Lebanon were repeatedly vetoed by the United States.”

“For the Arab people, this has been an era of grief and humiliation,” he wrote. “Since the end of the second world war, five Arab countries–Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt–have lost all or part of their land to Israel. Egypt finally regained Sinai but at the cost of betraying the others, and isolating itself from the Arab milieu.”

Ahmad went on to explain how a “power vacuum” came to exist in the Middle East, starting in the 1980s. When he signed a separate peace agreement with Israel, Egyptian  president Anwar Sadat anticipated a comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict that never materialized. “After making peace with its most populous and powerful Arab enemy, Israel proceeded to colonize and conquer the others with ruthless impunity,” he recounted.

Under the Camp David Accord, “A fraction of the Palestinian people (under one third of the whole) is promised a fraction of its rights (not including the national right to self-determination and statehood) in a fraction of its homeland (less than one-fifth of the area of the whole),” he said, quoting another commentator. Only days after the treaty had been signed, Israel announced the establishment of new Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories. This was a violation of promises made at Camp David, as Jimmy Carter would confirm.

“The sheikhs, led by Saudi Arabia, pleaded with Washington to save Arab face and their own dynastic future,” wrote Ahmad. “But they are prisoners of dependence and uneven development. They have acquired wealth without working and make enormous profits without producing. Their countries are littered with expensive machines but they have no technology. Their economies have tied them symbiotically to the United States. As expectations failed, they became objects of contempt. The power vacuum in the Arab world came to be palpably felt.

“The first clear sign that Iraq, not its Ba’athist rival Syria, was keen to fill the vacuum in the Middle East came when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980. Instead of discouraging his adventure, the United States quietly helped his ally, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait supplied Iraq with no less than US $60 billion in aid. The monster, if that is what Saddam is, was made by them.”

When Iraq invaded Iran in September, 1980, initiating a war that lasted for most of the decade, the US pursued a policy of playing both sides against the middle, with the objective of ensuring that neither nation would emerge with hegemony in the region. While maintaining what a White House official characterized as “55-45 percent neutrality” in favor of Iraq, the US helped both sides at one time or another. It secretly sold weapons to Iran in ’85 and ’86 while publicly asking its allies to embargo arms sales to that country. It provided reconnaissance information to Iraq via Saudi Arabia while clandestinely slipping information to Iran about Iraq. The US saw the Iran-Iraq war as an opportunity to increase its influence and military presence in the Gulf.

Despite this cynically opportunistic approach–a trademark of US foreign policy–the Reagan and Bush administrations consistently encouraged and supported Hussein during his rise to power. Early in 1983, when Iraq was near bankruptcy, the US granted $400 million in credit guarantees for the import of US wheat and agricultural commodities. Later that year, the “tilt” towards Iraq continued with the US informing its European and Gulf allies that an Iraqi defeat “would be contrary to US interests.”

In 1984, the same year the US confirmed Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran, Ronald Reagan restored full diplomatic relations with Iraq. The US encouraged its allies to make major weapons sales to Iraq, since the Soviet Union had cut off sales when Iraq invaded Iran.

At an international conference on chemical weapons in Paris in 1989, the Bush Administration protected Saddam by opposing efforts of other countries to name Iraq as a violator of chemical weapons accords. In June, 1990, less than two months before Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, the Bush Administration refused to endorse attempts by members of Congress to impose sanctions against Iraq for its human rights record and the US vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning Iraq for using chemical weapons on its own people.

Finally, on July 25, 1990, just one week before the Iraqi invasion, US Ambassador April Glaspie met with Hussein in Baghdad and told him: “President Bush is an intelligent man. He is not going to declare an economic war against Iraq.” She added, “we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border dispute with Kuwait.”

Three days later the CIA informed Bush that there “was a high degree of probability” that Iraq was going to invade Kuwait. Still, the only action the US took was to kill a Voice of America broadcast warning Iraq against invading Kuwait.

All indications were that the US was giving Iraq a green light and that the intent was to trap Saddam in a war.  This is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility given that Bush was “an intelligent man,” as well as the nation’s former chief spook.

Jonathan Ide, a Madison, Wisconsin researcher, published a well-documented paper titled The Gulf War: A Citizen’s Questions, shortly after the war. In his 20-page paper, he detailed the various grievances that motivated Hussein to invade Kuwait, his efforts to negotiate, and the US response. As Ide explained, Hussein had three main grievances:

First, that during its war with Iran, Kuwait’s border with Iraq had “crept north” until 900 square miles had been incorporated into Kuwait territory, including a tip of the rich oil reserve at Rumaila. Iraq also claimed that Kuwait was slant-drilling wells in order to extract Iraqi oil from Rumaila.

Second, Iraq had long sought naval access to the Gulf. It wanted rights to two uninhabited islands that belonged to Kuwait, and had offered to lease the islands. Kuwait had refused.

Third, Kuwait had been depressing world oil prices by overproduction, costing Iraq billions in lost revenue. Since Iraq was in a desperate economic state, this was something it could not afford to lose.

Overproduction by Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in violation of OPEC quotas, had forced the price of oil as low as $11 or $12 a barrel, while Iraq wanted an oil price of $25 a barrel. During spring and summer of 1990, Iraq held negotiations with Kuwait, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia. At one point, the oil ministers of all these countries agreed to push their oil prices gradually higher, but the following day the Kuwaiti oil minister announced that Kuwait would significantly increase production instead.

To make matters worse, Iraq had entered the war with Iran with $40 billion dollars in the bank, but left it $80 billion in debt. Kuwait had provided about $10 billion to Iraq during the war, which Saddam thought had been a grant. When the war ended, Kuwait demanded repayment and refused to restructure the debt.

As Ide pointed out, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the US refused to respond to at least five Iraqi overtures to negotiate. These offers were documented by The Nation, Der Spiegel, The Progressive and other publications. On August 9, 1990, one week after its invasion, Iraq sent a proposal to Washington offering to withdraw its troops in exchange for three things: control of the Rumaila oil field, access to the Persian Gulf, and US-Iraqi negotiations on oil prices.

Two weeks later, Iraq went further, offering to release all hostages, asking for sanctions to be lifted when a settlement was reached, and calling for the two countries to work together to “improve stability in the Gulf and to ease Iraq’s economic problems.”

At the start of the new year, as reported in Newsday, Iraq offered “to withdraw from Kuwait if the United States pledges not to attack as soldiers are pulled out, if foreign troops leave the region, and if there is agreement on the Palestinian problem and on the banning of all weapons of mass destruction in the region.” Furthermore, the New York Times reported that Yasser Arafat and Hussein were willing to drop their demands for “linkage” to the Palestinian problem provided there were assurances that the problem would be addressed in the future. This offer did not even mention the Rumaila oil field or access to the Gulf.


Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. and President George H.W. Bush visiting troops during the Gulf War

On January 14, the eve of war, France urged the UN Security Council to call for “a rapid and massive withdrawal” from Kuwait, together with a pledge that the Council would help settle regional matters, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, by convening an international conference to work out “the security, the stability, and development of this region of the world.”

In exchange for no war, all the US was obliged to do was agree to a peace conference. But the French resolution was vetoed by the US and Britain. On February 15, Baghdad Radio announced an offer of “conditional “ withdrawal from Kuwait, asking only that it not take place under fire. The White House called the offer a “cruel hoax,” insisting the withdrawal must come before a cease-fire.

By February 21, Iraq had agreed to terms of a Soviet peace initiative, which included a specific timetable for withdrawal. But the US rejected the Soviet plan and gave Iraq 24 hours to start withdrawing under their terms. As the New York Times reported, “some American officers in Washington have said privately that an Iraqi retreat is “the last thing they want to see.”

As Jonathan Ide remarked in his paper, it was not really a war, it was a massacre, or, to use General Schwarzkopf’s words, “a war of annihilation.” This was most evident in the “ground war,” which was not a ground offensive at all. It appears that Iraqi forces had already started to withdraw on February 21, two days before the US launched its offensive, when Iraq accepted the Soviet peace initiative.

Although the White House and the military tried to hide the fact that the US was attacking Iraqi troops trying to withdraw, some US pilots gave the Washington Post a different story. They described a “massive, disorderly retreat” and termed the bombing offensive a “turkey shoot” and “like shooting fish in a barrel.”

As I’m writing this, I have in front of me, pulled from my files, a letter from Kathy Kelly, the Nobel Peace Prize nominee and Chicago activist who works with Voices for Creative Nonviolence. The letter is dated February 23, 1991 and addressed to an old friend of mine, Laurie Hasbrook, whom I knew from my years in Milwaukee. Kathy is writing from Amman, Jordan, where she has traveled with the Gulf Peace Team. The team had been evacuated from Baghdad on February 1 and she had felt “chilled and dismal,” she wrote. The letter is impeccably typed, which seems to belie the gravity of the situation.

“On the road between Baghdad and Amman, we passed numerous smoldering vehicles. Tankers, buses, cars … the route is vital for civilians who want to flee from the war and for humanitarian convoys that evacuate the wounded or bring supplies for the needy,” Kathy wrote.


Kathy Kelly

She went on to describe how a donor had sent a huge shipment of milk supplement and baby food, none of which could be included in their convoy because UN sanctions only allowed Jordan’s Red Crescent to send medical supplies. Janet, a doctor from Scotland, is shedding tears while she hoists heavy bags of milk supplement off one of the trucks, so as not to compromise Jordan’s neutrality.

Already 14 Jordanian drivers have been killed while traveling on the road, but Kathy described the Red Crescent convoy drivers as playful and full or energy. “It was wonderful to see them clamber into the seven vehicles that formed our convoy, the first international relief convoy sponsored by the Red Crescent.” Fifteen tons of medical supplies were delivered.

Later, in a Red Cross international refugee camp, Kathy’s team is visited, late at night, by two doctors. One is an Algerian Red Cross doctor, the other the director of International Development for the Iraqi Red Crescent. Both had just left Baghdad on route to Amman. “The Algerian doctor described the situation in Baghdad as a siege on civilians,” Kathy wrote. “He said that average healthy people won’t die from going without food for several weeks. It’s the babies, the nursing mothers and the elderly pensioners who will suffer needlessly.” The 1949 Geneva Conventions endorse the basic rights of civilian victims of war, she notes.

Jean Dreze, a Belgian member of the peace team, had done extensive research on the impact of famine caused by the Gulf War. Millions of civilians, not only in the Gulf but elsewhere, suffer severely from the ravaging disruption of ordinary life caused by the war, she reported. Deep economic recession in many countries, famine in large parts of Africa, and a catastrophic oil slick in the Persian Gulf were only a few examples of devastation caused by the conflict.

The infant mortality rate had doubled in Iraq, Kathy added. From 1989 to 1990, Iraq had imported $2 million worth of medical supplies daily, she wrote. Since the embargo, it had dropped to less than $2 million a month. “If only nations would wage war on poverty and hunger with the same determination and political will as they are currently waging war against Iraq,” Kathy wrote near the end of her letter home.

Kathy Kelly’s peace contingent departed Baghdad on February 1 and Ramsey Clark arrived in Iraq the following day. Clark was the Attorney General in Lyndon Johnson’s administration. (His father, Tom Clark, had served as Attorney General under Harry Truman and later as a conservative Supreme Court justice under Earl Warren).

In a March editorial in The Nation, Clark described his week-long visit to Iraq with two filmmakers and an Iraqi-born American citizen. They traveled over 2,000 miles and “saw probably several hundred damaged or destroyed vehicles along the road. All were civilian vehicles: oil tankers, tractor-trailers, flatbeds, pickups, buses, minibuses, taxicabs and many private cars. In those we examined, we found no evidence of any military use,” he wrote.


                     Destroyed Iraqi civilian and military vehicles on the “Highway of Death”.  Credit: Tech. Sgt. Joe Coleman

The group examined civilian damage in Baghdad, Basra and Diwaniya, as well as smaller towns and communities. “No city, town or roadside stop we visited had running water, electricity, telephone service or adequate gasoline for transportation,” Clark wrote. “The effect on the cities has been disastrous.” The Minister of Health reported that the pollution of public water systems was the greatest health problem in the country, with tens of thousands known to be sick, hundreds of thousands assumed to be, and several thousand dead.

Basra was the most heavily damaged place the team visited, with hundreds of homes destroyed and hundreds of people killed and injured. Bombs had hit a low-cost, public housing development, killing 46 people and injuring more than 70, and other bombs hit an elementary and a high school. On the outskirts of Basra, a mosque was bombed to rubble and a family of at least ten were killed in the blast.

“Damage elsewhere in the cities and towns we visited was similar,” Clark reported. “There was no “collateral” military damage; all the destruction was to civilians. Bridges, telephone exchange, electric generator plants, water-processing and pumping stations, even government office buildings are essentially civilian and entirely noncombatant. We saw no evidence of military presence in any of the bombed areas we visited … The air assault deliberately targeting the civilian population of Iraq is a war crime.”

In an interview in The Progressive the following month, Clark described the systematic destruction of water systems, telecommunications, hospitals and everything pertaining to civilian life in Iraq. “It’s heartbreaking to witness,” he said. “The people are the ones getting bombed. You can’t bomb a city without killing people, and the idea that there’s pinpoint precision is ridiculous, a great falsehood.”

“I believe America must liberate itself from its love of violence and its love of wealth–which are closely integrated,” Clark commented in response to a question from the interviewer. “We are a plutocracy in the purest sense of the word–a government of wealth … you can’t see the autopsy photos of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King and Bob Kennedy and you can’t read the history of the Philippine-American war, and watch what we were doing in Vietnam, without rejecting violence. I completely reject violence. And yet, at the sacrifice of everything else, America spends hundreds of billions of dollars annually on violence. We really believe that might makes right, and that leads us to perpetual war.”

Kathy Kelly and Ramsey Clark visited Iraq in February. On March 20, the United Nations released a report on conditions of life in Iraq. It read in part:

Nothing that we had seen or read had quite prepared us for the devastation which has now befallen the country. The recent conflict has wrought near-apocalyptic results upon the economic infrastructure of what had been, until January 1991, a rather highly urbanized and mechanized society. Now, most means of modern life support have been destroyed or rendered tenuous. Iraq has, for some time to come, been relegated to a pre-industrial age.

The Reuters news service estimated the damage to Iraq’s civilian infrastructure at $180 billion.

As with most wars, it was not just innocent people, civilian infrastructure and the environment that suffered in Bush War I. It was also the concept of truth and the right of citizens to know what their government is doing that was damaged, perhaps beyond repair.

Bush I used the same ploy that his son would employ a decade later to sell a gullible public on war with Iraq: the pretext that Iraq was dangerously close to developing weapons of mass destruction. On November 22, 1990, Bush was warning a divided country about the grave threat of Saddam’s atomic program. But a comprehensive survey of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists a few months later would show that “Iraq was many years away from developing usable nuclear weapons.”

All the same, the US chose to attack all of Iraq’s major nuclear-research facilities, including the Tuwaitha reactor complex just 25 miles south of Baghdad. It was the first attack ever on an operational nuclear reactor. According to the Bulletin, the two small research reactors at Tuwaitha “were unconnected to Iraq’s bomb program.”

As noted in In These Times a couple of months after the war, the US won a minor PR victory at home “but defeated years of progress in international nuclear-arms control.” Just before the war, the UN General Assembly had passed a resolution urging against such attacks.

In the six-month build-up to the war, the American public was fed a steady stream of stories about Iraq’s fearsome arsenal of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Only after the war did Americans learn that Iraq lacked the technology to deploy those weapons. The New York Times reported that “captured Iraqi soldiers said most units had inadequate chemical-protection equipment, in some cases not even gas masks.” Newsweek reported that “not a single [Iraqi] chemical weapon has been found.” Does this sound all too familiar? Exactly. The whole script would be replayed a little over a decade later with another Bush in the starring role.

The media also speculated that Saddam possessed exotic fuel-air explosives (FAEs), powerful bombs that spread a highly inflammable mist over a wide area that they then ignite. An article in the New York Times warned that “Hussein might be planning to use [a] … horrific weapon, never before employed in combat, known as the fuel-air bomb.”

The In These Times article after the war pointed out that the fuel-air bomb had, in fact, been used before, by the US in Vietnam. If Iraq did have FAEs, it chose not to use them. The Boston Globe reported, on February 6, that “fuel-air bombs may have been dropped over Iraq” the previous weekend. The next day the Los Angeles Times reported that journalists touring a US air base in the Gulf spotted FAEs stockpiled on the tarmac. A few days later, a military spokesman admitted the US was dropping FAEs on Iraqi troops. On February 16, the Times reported that the largest FAE in the US arsenal, the 15,000-pound BLU-82/B, was being dropped on Iraqi targets. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute noted that this bomb “produces a concussive blast greater than that of the smallest nuclear devices.”

Not all the weapons employed by the US were “high-tech.” More than six months after the war, stories began to appear in the mainstream media about how the US Army had “used plows mounted on tanks and combat earth-movers to bury thousands of Iraqi soldiers–some still alive,” during the early stages of the ground attack. New York Newsday and the Philadelphia Inquirer gave the story front-page coverage, while the New York Times waited a few days and then “buried” the story.

An article in a veteran newspaper called On Guard reported on this heinous act of burying Iraqi soldiers and the subsequent response of the press. In an accompanying article in On Guard, Professor Francis Boyle, an expert on international law at the University of Illinois, inventoried a number of the atrocities committed by US troops and sharply refuted a report by Greenpeace which he claimed whitewashed US conduct of the war. Here are a few of the examples he cited:

  • When the US gave its final ultimatum for Iraq to withdraw its forces from Kuwait, it promised it would not attack retreating Iraqi forces. But attacking retreating Iraqi forces is exactly what Bush did. “This is clearly a war crime,” Boyle said.
  • When Marine Corps aircraft joined ground troops and began to bomb Iraqis fleeing Kuwait, it was not just Iraqis but innocent Kuwaiti people fleeing Kuwait City who died on the “highway to hell,” Boyle pointed out. “My guess is that at least 5,000 Kuwaiti citizens were killed by US military forces on this highway,” he wrote.

“Notice the order by Schwarzkopf “not to let anybody or anything out of Kuwait City” was a war crime itself. It called for the indiscriminate destruction of these vehicles irrespective of whether civilians or military personnel were in them.” The US Air Force had been given instructions to make the area a “free fire zone,” Boyle said, and this was a violation of international law because of the refusal to discriminate between military and civilian targets.

  • Boyle noted that Greenpeace admitted that a rationale of the bombing was “to achieve a psychological effect on the Iraqi people.” That meant these were “terror bombings” … “clearly prohibited by international law and constituted war crimes,” Boyle attested.

When the war broke out in January, 1991, I wrote a letter to my then congressman, Scott Klug. His response was unsatisfactory but, since he ended by saying “I hope you will continue to keep in touch,” I followed up my first letter with an eleven-page missive that included a lot of history concerning Iraq, Iran and the Middle East. I mentioned the impact of European colonialism and US imperialism on the region, Winston Churchill’s bombing of Iraq in the 1920s to secure British domination of the Iraqi oil fields, and the British use of poison gas and other weapons when villages failed to pay their tribute to the British Empire.

I quoted Alexander Cockburn quoting Churchill, who defended his use of chemical weapons as “the application of Western science to modern warfare” and as saying “We cannot … acquiesce in the non-utilization of any weapons that are available to procure a speedy termination to the disorder that prevails on the frontier.”

The “disorder on the frontier” induced the United States, around 1948, (the year I was born), to gradually assume the role of dominant power in the Middle East. The US spent the late 40s and early 50s wrestling and shadow boxing with Britain for control of Middle East oil. The US used strong diplomatic pressure to oust Russia from a province in northern Iran where the Soviet Union had secured an oil concession with a 51-49 division of profits. (This was embarrassing to the Brits, who had allowed Iran only a 20 percent cut of oil profits.)

On May 1, 1951, three days after Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh was elected Prime Minister, and with some egging on by the US, Iran nationalized the billion-dollar British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The US then collaborated with Britain to boycott Iranian oil and cut off its markets, while simultaneously giving Iran monetary aid. The US played with Mossadegh like a puppet on a string.

When Eisenhower came to office in 1952, the US resolved its differences with Britain and the puppet’s strings were promptly cut. John Foster Dulles was appointed Secretary of State and his brother, Allen Dulles, became Director of the CIA. (For those of you unfamiliar with US history of this era, picture Al Capone and John Dillinger on an international scale.)

The following August, a CIA-directed coup overthrew the Iranian government and replaced it with one led by a former Nazi collaborator. The CIA agent who managed the coup, Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of Teddy, later left the CIA to join the Gulf Oil Corporation as “government relations director” in Washington. No, I’m not making this up. It gets worse.

As the intrigue in Iran was being plotted, Kermit was joined in Teheran by Brigadier General H. Norman Schwarszkopf, who had reorganized the Shah’s police force in the 1940s. That’s right, as if two George Bushes were not bad enough, there were also two “Stormin Norman”s. (Like father, like son.) Schwarszkopf was an old friend of the Nazi collaborator and he claimed he was in Teheran “just to see old friends again.” In truth, he was part of the operation that overthrew the Iranian government.

Schwarzkopf and Bush at Victory Parade in 1991

George H.W. Bush and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf at Gulf War Victory Parade in 1991.       Credit: Associated Press

As a result of the coup, Britain lost its oil monopoly and Iranian oil was turned over to a consortium of England, France, Holland and the US.

In January, 1957, Eisenhower delivered a proposal to Congress, known as the Eisenhower Doctrine, which asked for authority for the president to use armed force in the Middle East “to secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence of such nations requesting aid against armed aggression from any nation controlled by International Communism.” Six months later, the US sent marines into Lebanon, accompanied by an armada off the coast of Beirut. It was a response to a rebellion against a pro-Western and crooked government, as well as a revolution in Iraq against the British-installed and pro-Western monarchy there.

The US first contemplated armed intervention in Iraq to oust the new government, but could not find anyone to collaborate with against the popular revolution. Instead, the US and Britain announced, according to the New York Times, that they would not invade Iraq unless the government failed to “respect western oil interests.”

In The Causes of World War III, a book he published shortly after the coup in Iraq, C. Wright Mills cited a Congressional document indicating that US concern had more to do with access to oil than any threat of “International Communism.” In fact, Colonel Karim Kassem, who took power in the coup, outlawed the Communist Party and slaughtered thousands of communists immediately after assuming control.

Shortly after, Kassem was toppled in another coup, which the French press said was inspired by the CIA. Kassem had announced formation of a national oil company and, according to an interview in Le Monde days before the coup, he had been threatened with sanctions by the US State Department. The Brits, aware of plans to oust Kassem, stipulated that the new government must abandon any claims to Kuwait, (still under the aegis of the British Empire), and must not proceed with plans to exploit the oil in areas recently recovered by Iraq.

Next followed the Nixon Doctrine, with Iran designated to play the role of surrogate policeman in the Persian Gulf. US arms merchants sold over $8 billion worth of weapons to the Shah during the 1970s and 50,000 US advisors helped expand and train his army and hated secret police.

The popular revolution that deposed the Shah in 1979 significantly altered the power equation in the Middle East. This and other events in the region led Washington to revert again to a strategy of direct military intervention. Soon after Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, his national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, dusted off an idea that had been around at least since the Vietnam War. The US should create a military force that could be dispatched rapidly to the Persian Gulf or anywhere else in the Third World.

In his State of the Union address in January, 1980, Carter declared: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” This became known as the Carter Doctrine.

Saudi Arabia, with a population too sparse to play a role like Iran had under the Nixon Doctrine, was ideally suited to assume a key role under the Carter Doctrine, which required not armies but bases in the Gulf. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia had courted US favor since its birth in 1932. Within a year, the Standard Oil Company of California cut a lucrative deal with Abdul Aziz ibn Abdul Rahman al Saud, the tribal leader who created the country by seizing territory from the Ottoman Turks.

The US government and US oil corporations have stood staunchly by the Saudi autocrats ever since, a relationship of mutual convenience. In what became known as the Irangate scandal, Congress refused the Reagan Administration funding for the Nicaraguan contras, so CIA chief William Casey called on the Saudi ambassador, who wrote a million dollar personal check for the contra account in Switzerland and promised another one every month.

Saudi princes have reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in kickbacks on contract with western firms, particularly in the area of arms acquisitions. Between 1970 and ’79, Saudi Arabia had already purchased $3.2 billion worth of US weapons and military services. By 1978, nearly 700 US military personnel and 10,000 civilians employed by US defense contractors were constructing military installations in the country. The pattern persisted into the next decade, with over $18 billion in arms sold to Saudi Arabia by the US, France, Great Britain and other nations between 1983 and 1987.

The Carter Administration couldn’t find a pawn in the Gulf region willing to openly play host for the Rapid Deployment Force headquarters, but Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980 provided the necessary leverage for the US to extract more concessions from Saudi Arabia. Over the next decade, Saudi Arabia dumped over $50 billion into building a Gulf-wide air defense system to US and NATO specifications. By 1988, the US Army Corps of Engineers had designed and constructed a $14 billion network of military facilities across the country. In August, 1990, the Corps returned to construct more facilities for the US troops there, since original scenarios hadn’t anticipated such a large deployment of ground forces.

Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of Defense under Reagan in the 1980s, wrote in a classified Defense Guidance report that US troops, not Saudis, would be the first-line forces in any crisis. “Whatever the circumstances,” he wrote, “we should be prepared to introduce American forces into the region should it appear that the security of access to Persian Gulf oil is threatened.”

US naval intervention became reality in July, 1987, when Reagan responded to a Kuwaiti request to place its oil tankers under US protection. The US sent an armada that grew to nearly 50 ships in and near the Gulf. There were several confrontations with Iranian forces–opportunities to test sophisticated new weapons–including the missile system that shot down an Iranian civilian plane, killing 291 people.

Which pretty much brings us back up to 1991 and Bush War I, and my letters to Congressman Klug. I sent copies of the letters to US Senators Robert Kasten and Herb Kohl, Congressmen Les Aspin, James Moody and Robert Kastenmaier, and the mayors of Madison and Milwaukee.

My long second letter went out on February 15, but Senator Kasten replied on the 14th that, “with a heavy heart,” he had voted for the resolution authorizing Bush to use all necessary means to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait. “I believe that the President made every effort for a peaceful solution,” he wrote.

I wonder if he ever bothered to read the second letter, which clearly, extensively and unequivocally documented the fact that the US had been preparing for three decades or more for a non-peaceful solution.

Michael Klare, a professor of Peace and World Security Studies, wrote in The Progressive a couple months after the war that “American war aims in the Persian Gulf were truly predatory. The intensity of the bombing and the determination to destroy everything of industrial or military value in Iraq suggest a goal that exceeds battlefield considerations.”

It was “Iraq’s future military capabilities that US officials worried about most,” Klare wrote, “it’s theoretical ability to emerge as a regional superpower in the late 1990s and thereby constrain Washington’s intent to dominate the oil-rich Persian Gulf region. American leaders viewed the destruction of Iraq as a warning to other rising Third World powers of the terrible risks they will incur if they contest US primacy in areas the United States deems critical.”

Later in his article, Klare noted that some pundits were speaking of a new “Pax Americana” based on US domination of the international community. Bush himself had labeled this arrangement a “New World Order.” But Klare warned that it would be a terrible mistake to assume all challenges to US domination would disappear.

“The Iraqi experience is likely to lead other aspiring nations to move more rapidly toward the development of nuclear weapons so that they can effectively deter military intervention by the United States and its allies,” he wrote. “And those angry people who do not have access to powerful weapons will find other ways of expressing their hostility, producing an endless need for US “peacekeeping” throughout the vast sweep of the Third World … The destruction of Iraq may endow America with a sense of omnipotence, but it will not bring us peace.”

▪ ▪ ▪


Afghanistan: Slaughtering hearts and minds in the longest war

This is the fifth installment in a series on issues of War or Peace.

What’s there to say about this war? It’s the oldest in US history. It seems like it’s been dragging on forever, and yet it also seems to be a forgotten war. I wonder if anyone even thinks about it anymore?

Perhaps the Afghans, who lost family members, or lost their poor pillaged country, once again, to endless destruction, terror and violence? Perhaps the soldiers, sent once again to fight a senseless war, and lost their limbs, lost their buddies, or loss their sanity? Perhaps the brave peace activists from Voices for Creative Nonviolence, who never fail to care?

The media never seemed to pay it much attention. I have a whole file drawer stuffed with articles and news clippings about the Bush wars in Iraq, but only one meager file folder about the never-ending war in Afghanistan. I search my brain: what was the war called? The Americans, (as well as their Israeli pals), are always adept at coming up with catchy code names before they invade a country and wreak havoc. So I looked it up. They called it Operation Enduring Freedom when they attacked Afghanistan way back in October, 2001.

I suppose it may be hard to determine if the Afghan people feel more free than they did 17 years ago. I suspect it’s mostly about enduring.

I recall that I wrote a poem about the war back in early 2010, later published in the Atlanta Review. Even the poem seems ancient now. I had just heard General Stanley McChrystal say on NPR that “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in.” Now I wonder: what happened to the box? Was it big enough to do the job? What happened to the government? And what happened to all the lucky people who were going to get this government, a gift courtesy of Uncle Sam?

So what was the pretense for this war? That Afghan people needed a government? No, not quite. As it happened, they’d already had quite a few governments, most provided by an assortment of other generous foreign benefactors.

But the September 11 attacks had happened. Much of the world was in sympathy with the US and this sympathy could have been parlayed into a plan to bring peace, stability and social development to the Mideast. Uncle Sam had new-found friends willing to help with this task. But Bush and the military decided an enemy would be more useful. Why not Afghanistan? No matter that Afghanistan had nothing to do with September 11. The attacks were planned, funded and carried out by people connected with Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s worst dictatorships but also a US ally. So Bush bombed Afghanistan instead and thus began the realm of permanent warfare in the US empire.

This war for “enduring freedom” has been a long one, even if you start the clock on October 7 of 2001, but the war has deeper roots. US involvement in that country actually began around 1979, nearly 40 years ago. I learned this from an article in my file from CovertAction Quarterly, (CAQ), a magazine founded by former CIA officer turned agency critic Philip Agee. (The magazine ceased publication in 2005).

In May 1979, seven months before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a CIA station chief in Islamabad met with Afghan mujahideen in Peshawar, Pakistan and agreed to supply them with arms. (This tidbit was actually attributed to Alfred McCoy, the University of Wisconsin historian and expert on CIA drug trafficking).

Once the Soviets invaded on December 24, 1979, and installed their own pro-Soviet government, the US began to support the Pakistan-based resistance more fully. From 1979 to ’89, more than half of the $5-6 billion in CIA aid went to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord with an unsavory reputation and renowned for his violence, who was both anti-Soviet and anti-US. With Uncle Sam’s money, he made war on the Soviets, as well as other resistance groups, while becoming the country’s leading drug lord.

Guns, money and aid from the CIA and Saudi Arabia were funneled through Pakistan’s intelligence agency, which “ensured that the more Islamist elements among the resistance got the plums of foreign assistance,” noted the CAQ article. “From the start, the US was aware that its aid was fostering a form of warlordism within the Afghan resistance … and that the … strategy of rewarding some resistance factions at the expense of others was undermining any chance of developing a “credible” non-Communist leadership.”

The US continued to supply Hekmatyar with arms even after the Soviets left and even after the US ambassador to Pakistan attested that the aid had stopped. Fighting between the various mujahideen factions intensified, with much of the struggle over who would control the drug trade rather than who would lead the state.

Training camps for Islamist fighters sprung up in eastern Afghanistan, in areas under Hekmatyar’s party’s control and “many of the participants in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center claimed to have had combat experience with Hekmatyar’s troops.” Someone convicted in the 90’s of plotting to blow up US airliners supposedly bragged of getting training in terrorist tactics in bases such as these.

“It became clear by 1994, five years after the Soviet withdrawal, that the so-called Afghan freedom fighters had turned their country into “a breeding ground for drugs and terrorism,”” the CAQ article concluded, citing stories in the New York Times and New York Times Magazine.

Then came the Taliban, fanatical students from the madressas, Islamic religious schools, many in Pakistan, and funded by the Saudis. Launching their first assault from a base in Pakistan in October 1994, they took advantage of all the discord and corruption among the Mujahideen warlords and quickly seized Kabul and about two-thirds of the country’s provinces. It’s not clear if the US had supported the Taliban all along, certainly Pakistan and Saudi Arabia had, but on the day the rebels captured Kabul, a State Department spokesperson acclaimed they might be “the group that might finally bring stability to Afghanistan.”

Stability was the one thing that Uncle Sam yearned for in Afghanistan, not so much so that the people could live in peace, but because it was good for business. Business in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, revolved around oil. Uncle Sam wanted to be warm and snugly with a government in Kabul so that it could pursue plans for a natural gas pipeline and an oil pipeline project involving the US firm Unocal, (now merged with Chevron), and the Saudi group Delta Oil.

Way back in the mid-90s, the two companies reached an agreement with Turkmenistan, the former Soviet republic, for a Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline. It would stretch from the oil and gas rich Caspian Sea region of Turkmenistan, south through Afghanistan to Pakistan and into India.

Afghan mapA consortium to construct the pipeline, led by Unocal, was formed in 1996 and Robert Oakley, the US ambassador to Pakistan, joined up the following year. In January 1998, the Taliban signed an agreement to allow the project to proceed. But when two American embassies were bombed later than year, the US alleged that Osama bin Laden was behind the attacks, which led to a falling out with the Taliban. Unocal withdrew from the consortium that December and closed its offices in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

When negotiations with the Taliban stalled again in late 2001, the Bush Administration threatened them with war, according to some accounts, wrote Frank Blair and Julie Byrnes Enslow in an issue of the Peace Action Wisconsin newsletter in September 2010. “The attack on 9/11 was the needed trigger to launch a war on Afghanistan. Plans had been drawn up in advance,” they wrote.

Hamid Karzai, whom the US installed as Afghan president after the invasion, had been a Unocal adviser and a key collaborator in the pipeline plans, Blair and Enslow pointed out. Karzai signed the December 2002 deal on the pipeline along with the leaders of Turkmenistan and Pakistan.

Although Bush may have started it, Afghanistan became Obama’s war. He embraced it from the start, calling it a “good war” during his presidential campaign. What was bad under Bush became abominable under Obama. Hardly a month into his presidency he announced he would withdraw 100,000 troops from Iraq while ordering three brigades of troops – 17,000 soldiers and Marines – to Afghanistan to join the 30,000 Americans already there. The ugly pattern would continue to repeat itself: every time the US increased its forces, the insurgency grew stronger and the influence of the Taliban spread.

Not that he wasn’t warned. Most of the articles in my file are from the first two Obama years, with everyone from former Wisconsin Congressman David Obey to Amy Goodman cajoling, pleading and demanding that the president take a different path than his predecessor. He didn’t listen.

Here was Joe Galloway, writing for McClatchy Newspapers, the week Obama made his first fateful decision to send more troops: “The nation we set out to free from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and visit with the blessings of democracy has paid a hellish price for its salvation: Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been slaughtered in civil war and ethnic cleansing and as collateral damage in the war. Millions more have been forced from their homes and turned into refugees … Now we wait to hear how many of the American troops leaving Iraq will be retrained and recycled into a potentially disastrous war in Afghanistan that’s dragged on even longer.

“The Taliban insurgents now have a chokehold on as much as 70 percent of Afghanistan, and they’re proving to be flexible and adaptive in their attacks on American, NATO and Afghan forces.

“If the new American team has some new ideas about how to succeed in Afghanistan, now would be the time to lay them out. Nothing that Alexander the Great, Queen Victoria or Leonid Brezhnev tried in their attempts to subdue the quarrelsome Afghan tribes worked, and nothing we’ve tried in the last eight years has, either.”

And here’s Joseph Gerson, director of the Peace and Economic Security Program of the American Friends Service Committee, in a column published in the Madison Cap Times: “The mistaken “logic” underlining the contradictions of massively increasing the number of US warriors sent to Afghanistan is to increase bargaining leverage with the Taliban. Obama wants to augment US influence in Afghanistan before the US approves Karzai negotiations with the Taliban or publicly begins them on its own.

“Unfortunately, like LBJ and Nixon, Obama’s approach won’t work. With its corruption, its reliance on repressive and misogynist warlords, and the deaths and suffering of civilians caused by US-NATO attacks, Afghan hearts and minds will not rally to the Karzai government or to US forces. Similar to the failures of “Vietnamization” in the early 1970s, the idea that the US will be able to triple the size of the Afghan military, isolate it from corrupting warlord and Karzai government influences, and provide it with modern warfighting capabilities in just two years is a deadly pipe dream.

“This leads to a situation analogous to that described in the Pentagon Papers in which 85 percent of the reason for continuing the Vietnam War, and even escalating it, will be “perception,” to defend the image of the US as a military superpower that must not be challenged.”

One of the most cogent arguments to end the war was written by Sonali Kohlhatkar, co-director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, less than a year into the Obama presidency. It was published in Foreign Policy in Focus and reprinted in Toward Freedom. With little debate among progressives about how bad the war was, she warned that the opportunity to end the war “is slipping through our fingers.”

She outlined the way that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were similar: how they killed both civilians and soldiers, made women less safe, the occupations were both unpopular on the ground and led to greater instability, and that “our tax dollars are being disappeared into a sinkhole of destruction rather than human needs.” Where they differed, she said, was that progressives were clear from the start about Iraq but Afghanistan “seems to confuse our moral compass.”

“Our actions in Afghanistan have caused a perfect storm of untold numbers of civilian deaths, fundamentalist resurgence, and women’s oppression … If ever the Afghanistan war had any legitimacy, it’s irreversibly gone,” she wrote.

“One of the original justifications for the war that seemed to resonate most with liberal Americans was the liberation of Afghan women from a misogynist regime,” she said. “What this logic misses is that the United States chose right from the start to sell out Afghan women to its misogynist fundamentalist allies on the ground. The US armed the

Afghan refugee girl

Afghan girl named Nasila in refugee camp in Passau, Germany in August, 2015. Credit: Jazzmany

Mujahideen leaders in the 1980s against the Soviet occupation, opening the door to successive fundamentalist governments including the Taliban. In 2001, the United States then armed the same men, now called the Northern Alliance, to fight the Taliban and then welcomed them into the newly formed government as a reward. The American puppet president Hamid Karzai, in concert with a cabinet and parliament of thugs and criminals, passed one misogynist law after another, appointed one fundamentalist zealot after another to the judiciary, and literally enabled the downfall of Afghan women’s rights over eight long years … add to this the unacceptably high number of innocent women and children killed in US bombing raids, which has also increased the Taliban’s numbers and clout.


“Those who make the case that withdrawing US troops will unleash another bloody civil war where Afghan women and men will be at the mercy of the Taliban and warlords, are raising the exact same justification made for the war in 2001: that it’s our moral duty to protect Afghans from fundamentalist violence. This logic ignores the fact that we have nurtured and created the very fundamentalist violence that targets Afghans.”

In March, 2011, Sojourners magazine ran a number of articles about the war in Afghanistan. Jim Wallis, the editor, in a column called Hearts & Minds, wrote that the monetary cost of the war was more than $100 billion a year and that the two wars together had already cost the country about $1.3 trillion in the preceding decade.

We are paying billions for weapons systems the military didn’t ask for and doesn’t need, Wallis said. “The amount of money spent on war is no longer tenable. It is time for the war in Afghanistan to end. Our financial and spiritual health depends on it.”

In another article, David Cortright, director of policy studies at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, wrote that military means had always been the first resort, not the last, in Afghanistan. More than 90 percent of all spending for the country had gone through the Pentagon, he said, and Bob Woodward’s account of Obama’s 2009 strategic review showed that nonmilitary options were never considered.

“Pakistani military and intelligence agencies have long supported the Taliban,” Cortright wrote. “The United States has responded to this dilemma by pressuring a reluctant Pakistani army to wage war against its own people. The US has also taken matters into its own hands by mounting frequent drone bombing strikes, commando raids, and targeted assassinations across the border. These actions have alienated and enraged many Pakistanis and are generating greater support for the insurgency the US is attempting to suppress, threatening to destabilize Pakistan itself and fueling extremism across the region.”

“The number of US military raids has increased sharply with the administration’s military surge, and this has created deepening resentment and anger among many Afghans, including President Hamid Karzai … The current strategy of large-scale counterinsurgency and targeted bombing is questionable morally, unwinnable militarily, and unsustainable politically.”

In yet another Sojourner’s article, Eric Stoner, a professor and freelance journalist, reported on his travels to Afghanistan in late 2010 with Voices for Creative Nonviolence. More than 30 years of war had left the country in a “perpetual state of crisis,” Stoner reported. Afghanistan had the lowest life expectancy in the world, he said, as well as the worst infant mortality rate, with one of every four children not surviving to see their fifth birthday.

He recounted visiting a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul, full of people who had fled their homes in Helmand province after a US military offensive. A man showed him black-and-white photos of his children, killed during a US bombardment.  “To add insult to injury,” Stoner noted, residents of the camp “must look every day at the enormous US military base that is being constructed on a hill overlooking the squalid camp.”

For the cost of just 246 soldiers in Afghanistan for a year, he said, the US could fully pay for higher education for the entire country.

Robert Scheer, the award-winning journalist and editor-in-chief of Truthdig, penned an essay in 2010 called The High Price of Patriotism. “Our military investments recruit rather than combat terrorists, but that is not a bad outcome if the goal is greater instability as an excuse to keep defense spending absurdly high despite the end of the Cold War two decades ago,” he wrote. “Our military budget … is nothing more than a profit and jobs center for the defense industry, which has its tentacles in every congressional district. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were never about combating terrorism, which is a supranational phenomena anchored in neither country.

“Patriotism is always in the eye of the beholder, so why is Karzai’s patriotism tawdrier than that of the executives of Lockheed and Boeing who still build planes designed to evade Soviet air defenses that were never created?, Scheer said.

“Karzai is now playing the patriot who will line the pockets of his most influential countrymen … He is proving to be a substantial leader, corrupt as he may be, in that he is no longer willing to play the puppet. This sort of rebellion happened before in Vietnam when Ngo Dinh Diem, the US-imposed liberator, turned against us and our CIA assassinated him. How long before Karzai meets a similar fate?

“This fatal syndrome in American imperial designs is well known to Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obama’s key civilian adviser, who played a similar role in Vietnam. Back then, when Holbrooke was involved in the Phoenix assassination program (he now is involved with the drone assassinations), the reckless murder of civilians was aimed at winning their hearts and minds. It didn’t work because we destroyed too many of their bodies in the process.

“The arrogance of these adventures in nation-building represents an enduring example of America’s deeply provincial and blindingly self-centered role in the world. That Holbrooke has learned nothing from his trail of deceit posing as diplomacy is not so startling given the obtuse nature of the man, but that Obama has entrusted this most critical aspect of his foreign policy to the likes of a hack like Holbrooke is truly depressing.”

On October 3, 2015, two Nobel Peace Prize winners came head-to-head with each other in Kunduz, Afghanistan. One bombed the hell out of the other. (The US and Britain had officially ended their combat operations in the country one year earlier, but more on that later.)

Doctors Without Borders, (Médecins Sans Frontieres, (MSF) as they are known elsewhere), opened the Kunduz Trauma Center in August 2011. It was the only facility of its kinds in northeastern Afghanistan, providing high-quality, free surgical care to victims of general trauma, including traffic accidents and conflict-related injuries. During 2014, the hospital had cared for more than 22,000 patients and performed 4,241 surgeries.

Before the facility opened, Doctors Without Borders participated in comprehensive negotiations with all parties to the conflict, discussing the nature of their work and reaching agreements regarding respect for the neutrality of the medical facility and activities. The agreement was grounded in International Humanitarian Law (IHL). MSF affirmed that a strict “no weapons” policy would be enforced at all times in the compound. The location and GPS coordinates of the facility were shared repeatedly with all relevant parties.

As heavy fighting broke out in Kunduz, the MSF staff launched a mass casualty plan for wounded patients and increased the number of beds. At first, government troops composed the bulk of those wounded in the fighting, then it shifted to more Taliban seeking treatment. In the week before the bombing, staff treated 376 patients in the ER, more than a quarter women and children under 15.

On the night of October 2, it was calm around the hospital. There was no fighting and no planes overhead. The staff was busy trying to catch up; there were 150 patients in the hospital and about 150 staff too. The building was brightly lit and spread across the roof was a large white and red flag reading Médecins Sans Frontieres.

Here’s a couple paragraphs from an MSF report about what happened next:

Between 2:00 am and 2:09 am on October 3, the first in what would be a sustained series of precise airstrikes was launched targeting the main hospital building. The first strike killed two patients on operating tables, among others, and drove staff to seek shelter in the sterilization room. The explosions woke MSF international staff members sleeping in the administrative building, where an MSF nurse arrived covered in debris and blood, his left arm hanging from a small piece of tissue. Medics provided immediate treatment to stabilize him.

Amidst ongoing volleys of fire and a series of ground-shaking explosions, many staff heard something that sounded like a propeller plane circling the hospital–consistent with reports that an American AC-130 gunship carried out the attacks. Many staff described seeing people shot as they ran from the main hospital building. Staff also recounted a patient in a wheelchair killed by shrapnel as he attempted to escape, an MSF doctor getting his leg blown off, people running while on fire before falling to the ground, and a staff member decapitated by shrapnel. Fire also hit the southern area of the compound, where two unarmed MSF guards were later found dead from shrapnel wounds.

The airstrikes stopped between 60 and 75 minutes after they started. About 42 people were killed in the attack, including 14 staff members. Six intensive care patients were burned to death in their beds. Surviving medical staff collected supplies, converted an administrative office into a makeshift emergency room, triaged patients, and began treating the wounded. Surgeries were performed on an office desk and a kitchen table.

Kunduz hospital bombing

At the time of the airstrikes on MSF’s hospital in Kunduz, the operating facilities were in use. There were patients on the tables being attended to by surgeons and other medical staff. Credit: Dan Sermand/MSF

The US military initially claimed the airstrike was carried out to defend US forces on the ground. Later, the US commander in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, said the strike was requested by Afghan forces that had come under Taliban fire. After an investigation, Campbell said the incident was “the direct result of avoidable human error, compounded by process and equipment failures.” Sixteen members of the US military were disciplined but none were criminally charged. Cockpit recording showed that the AC-130 crew questioned the strike’s legality.


Doctors Without Borders was clear about calling the attack a war crime. “This is not solely about whether or not Yemen or Afghanistan are safe for aid workers … It’s about how countries fighting wars under the banner of counterterrorism too often seek to extricate themselves from the bounds of international treaties and conventions. This was part of the post-9/11 rhetoric coming out of the US, when Bush administration officials labeled the Geneva Conventions “quaint,” and it relates to how the US’s drone program, to name one, operates now. This is how Russia conducted itself in Chechnya and elsewhere and is now conducting itself in Syria, where it bombed several medical centers in the first weeks of its overt involvement in the country. This is certainly how the Assad regime directs its campaign against its people.”

Bombing the hospital was just one of many incidents in the war that served to lose “the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people.

There was the case, on March 4, 2007 when US Marines, reacting to a suicide attack in Spinpul in Nangarhar Province, proceeded to slaughter a dozen civilians, including a one-year-old child. The soldiers sprayed bystanders “with machine-gun fire in a rampage that covered 10 miles of highway,” according to the New York Times.

A 16-year-old newly-married girl was killed while carrying a bundle of grass to her farmhouse to feed the animals. A car was hit and shredded by 250 bullets; the driver survived but two elderly men and a 16-year-old boy died. A 75-year-old man walking to his shop was hit by so many bullets that his son couldn’t recognize the body when he arrived at the scene.

Later that year, eight civilians, including a pregnant woman and a baby, died when a Polish unit shelled the village of Nangar Khel a few hours after an insurgent IED ambush damaged a Polish armored vehicle. Seven soldiers were charged with war crimes after locals stated that the unit fired mortar rounds and machine guns into a wedding celebration without provocation.

This incident was interesting to research in that reports from the Polish military command were included in the 91,731 classified documents released by WikiLeaks on

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Afghan family protests at White House after US Army Staff Sargent Robert Bales charged with 17 counts of murder for killing 8 adults and 9 children in Afghanistan. Washington, DC, March 25, 2012. Credit: Will E. Davis, Shutterstock

July 25, 2010. A “consequence management team” from the Polish Battle Group (PBG), including a general and colonel and a Governor Khapalwak, visited the village a day after the attack, just as the last of the victims was being buried.

The Governor addressed the entire burial party and then heard complaints from the people gathered. “Men speaking on behalf of the crowd stated that they are a very poor people,” read the official report. “They hate the Taliban because the Taliban come into their village and steal money from them and tell them to feed their troops. They hate the Americans because they bomb our homes. (The villagers were not aware that Polish troops were now working the area.) The villagers felt the Americans acted the same as the Soviets, coming to Afghanistan under the pretense of helping the country but then proceeding to kill villagers.”

In 2011, a Polish military court cleared the soldiers of all crimes. “The mistaken killing of civilians by foreign forces, usually during air strikes or night-time raids, is a major source of friction between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers, and has complicated efforts to win support from ordinary Afghans,” the Reuters account noted.

On September 4, 2009, it was a Colonel Georg Klein, a German officer with a NATO unit, who ordered US jets to bomb two tankers that had been hijacked in the Taliban-controlled district of Chahar Dora near Kunduz. About 142 people, primarily civilians, died in the attack, but German lawyers and journalists later claimed that 179 civilians were killed.

Nearly a year later, Der Spiegel reported that the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, had agreed to compensate relatives of civilian victims with a payment of $5,000. Initially the army did not take any action on the case, the report noted, and, contrary to NATO regulations, did nothing to investigate the impact of the air strikes.

The compensation agreement did not include any admission of guilt. Military attorneys said that Germany’s recent reclassification of the Afghanistan mission as a “non-international armed conflict,” (a war), meant that the victims no longer had any legal claims.

So what should Americans call this conflict that was once called a war, our longest war, the war for “enduring freedom”? Is it still a war? I don’t know; perhaps you can figure it out. I scrolled through page after page of Wikipedia’s account of the conflict, hoping to gain some clarity.

What I found was that the “ending” of this war is elusive; it’s as never-ending as the war itself. Part of it is probably just the sticky nature of imperial counterinsurgency. Part of it is probably Obama’s great gift for getting liberals to believe one thing while he was doing another. About the same time he was surging, he was promising to withdraw.

In January of 2012, Karzai and Obama met in the United States and the US stated it was willing to withdraw all its troops by the end of 2014. In May of 2012, the NATO countries began announcing their intended exit from Afghanistan and Obama and Karzai signed an “Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement.” (There’s that word enduring again.)

But as troops began to withdraw from Afghanistan, they were replaced by private security companies. (Eric Stoner pointed out that, for the first time in history, more private contractors lost their lives than did soldiers during the first six months of 2010 in Afghanistan.)

On May 27, 2014, Obama announced that US combat operations in Afghanistan would end that December. On October 26, both the US and Britain officially ended their combat operations in Afghanistan. But unofficially nothing much seemed to change.

In 2015, according to Wikipedia, “American forces increased raids against Islamist militants, moving beyond counterterrorism missions.” This was partially due to improved relations between the two countries when Ashraf Ghani was elected president in September, 2014. “Reasoning used for these raids include protecting American forces, which has been broadly interpreted,” Wikipedia noted.

In March, Reuters reported that US military bases in Kandahar and Jalalabad were likely to remain open beyond 2015, as the US considered slowing its withdrawal to help the new government fight the Taliban. Throughout 2015, the US launched about 1,000 bombs and missiles at targets in Afghanistan, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

In January 2016, the Obama administration sent a directive to the Pentagon granting new legal authority for the military to go on the offensive in Afghanistan. In June, Obama approved a policy to give the US military greater ability to “accompany and enable Afghan forces fighting the Taliban,” a decision allowing greater use of US air power. In July, Obama announced plans to leave 8,400 troops in Afghanistan when he finished his term.

That September, the Afghan government signed a peace deal with Hezb-i-Islami, the organization led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. (Remember him?). The group agreed to cease hostilities, cut ties to extremist groups and respect the Afghan constitution. Hekmatyar was promised an honorary position in the government.

In February 2017, the Huffington Post reported that, according to a UN report, US aircraft conducted about 30 air strikes in Helmand Province in the preceding week. In April of last year, the Trump Administration deployed an additional 5,000 US Marines to Southern Helmand Province. On April 13, the US dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb, the 21,600 pound Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), known endearingly as the “Mother of All Bombs,” on a village in eastern Afghanistan.

And so it goes.

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Next Time:  Bush War I: The Beginning of Permanent War

Violence in America: The Chickens Come Home to Roost

This is the fourth in a series of posts on the theme of War Or Peace

It’s one of those old sayings where everyone knows the meaning but it’s difficult to pinpoint the origin. Why chickens? Pretty harmless creatures, (if a bit quirky), aren’t they? They never struck me as fierce or nefarious. What does it matter if they happen to come home to roost?

The rallying cry of some on the left during the Vietnam War was Bring the War Home. Little did they know, I suspect, that it would happen, but probably not in quite the way they imagined or intended. But pick your proverb. The chickens came home and so did the war. If not the war, then at least the violence.

The ugly irony is that, with each new war America wages, fewer and fewer soldiers fight and fewer get killed. (More come home and kill themselves than die in combat.) But the home front, largely unscathed by foreign war for most of its history, grows more and more violent with each passing year.

I suspect that’s the nature of violence: it is a malignant virus that affects the perpetrator as well as the victim. The violence of warfare doesn’t lead to peace, just to an escalation of violence; and on the home front it permeates the body politic and infects it like a cancer.

“More and more, the United States resembles a giant laboratory researching death–its seduction and profitability,” wrote priest and peace activist Philip Berrigan at the start of the first Gulf war in early 1991. But who are the lab rats in this laboratory of death? The poor people of Iraq and Afghanistan, for sure, and Palestinians and Syrians, and last but not least, the citizens of the United States, who pay the bills to run the lab. They pay the bills and they are also the rats: the victims, intended or not, of the heinous research and experimentation that is transforming the whole country into a monstrosity that makes Frankenstein’s creature look mild-mannered.

Does this sound like hyperbole? I’m afraid it isn’t.

Recently, my life in transition, I spent a lot of time sorting through old magazines, newspaper articles and assorted files and papers. Here’s an article from the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal asserting that the United States is “the most violent and self-destructive nation on Earth,” according to a report from the Senate Judiciary Committee. The year? 1991. Based on FBI data, the report said Americans were killing, raping and robbing one another at a furious rate, surpassing every other country that keeps crime statistics.

“When viewed from the national perspective, these crime rates are sobering” the report stated. “When viewed from the international perspective, they are truly embarrassing.”  The report noted that the US murder rate was twice that of Northern Ireland, then torn by civil war, and eleven times that of Japan.

An article a few months earlier, published in a Catholic weekly in Milwaukee, quoted a priest that I had known from community organizing on the west side of the city. Milwaukee had just surpassed its old homicide record and the priest described the neighborhood as in a state of “paralysis.  It’s not just the poor inner city community that says life is cheap,” he said. “The larger community cheapens life” by not taking action to curb the violence.

In the same dog-eared file folder was an essay from the National Catholic Reporter by the late Jesuit priest Robert Drinan lamenting the fact that 36 percent of American households owned a gun. This was 2003 and the death rate by guns for young black men was 25 times the rate for white males, he said, decrying the “compelling power over members of Congress” exercised by the NRA. Drinan had been elected to Congress as an opponent of the Vietnam War and was the first member of Congress to call for the impeachment of Richard Nixon, not because of the Watergate scandal but for Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia.

Rummaging further in the file folder, I found an article about “a new video game in which the player stalks and shoots fellow students and teachers in school settings.” School Shooter: North American Tour 2012 is “a first-person game that allows the player to move around a school and collect points by killing defenseless students and teachers,” the news story states. Sandy Hook happened in late 2012 but the article is from April of 2011.

[I drafted this post you are reading in February, right after Parkland. On May 29th, I came across an online petition announcing that the Valve Corporation of Bellevue, child with gunWashington was planning to launch a new video game on June 6th that allows players to simulate a school shooting. “Valve is considered to be one of the most important and influential companies in the gaming industry,” according to Wikipedia. Most, if not all of its games, are violent. I hope the school shooter game was never released. I hope the company goes bankrupt. I hope the video entrepreneurs die peacefully in their sleep and then go to hell, if there is such a place.]

The next newspaper article, faded yellow now, is from the Madison Isthmus, a 1993 opinion piece by Milwaukee-based conservative commentator Charles Sykes. The average American child sees 15,000 television murders by age 18, Sykes pointed out, and homicide was then the second leading cause of childhood death.

“Recent Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearings on television violence documented the mounting evidence linking televised violence with an increasingly violent society,” Sykes wrote. “The nonstop diet of beatings, assaults, rape, sadism and murder … sends very direct messages to children. On television, violence is the ultimate problem-solver; it provides the instant gratification of instant resolution. Faced with problems of their own, youngsters increasingly turn to violence as the first, rather than last, resort.”

Does that last sentence sound to you, as it does to me, like US foreign policy for the last 25 years or so?

Down near the bottom of this same file folder lurks the most fascinating article of all. It’s from the June, 1999, issue of U.S. Catholic magazine and written by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, who had recently retired from the US Army. Grossman was an expert on the psychology of killing, what he termed “killology,” and he had already penned a book titled On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.

Grossman argued that kids aren’t just turning to violence on their own; American culture is training and teaching them to kill. He should know. He spent nearly 25 years as an army infantry officer and psychologist, “learning and studying how to enable people to kill.” According to Grossman, and this may be the best news in my essay, killing doesn’t come naturally. It is a learned skill. Even soldiers, he says, have a “God-given resistance” to killing their own kind.

In the Civil War, he points out, the average firing rate was incredibly low. In World War II, Army researchers discovered that only 15 to 20 percent of riflemen could bring themselves to fire at exposed enemy soldiers. “Men are willing to die, they are willing to sacrifice themselves for their nation, but they are not willing to kill,” he wrote.

This surprising insight into human nature was obviously a “problem” for the Army, so it systematically set about “fixing” it. By the Korean War, according to Grossman, 55 percent of soldiers were willing to fire to kill, and this increased to more than 90 percent by Vietnam.

Grossman then listed some of the methods the military uses to improve the killing rate of soldiers in combat. His premise is that our culture uses similar techniques to teach kids to kill.

Brutalization and desensitization is one of the training methods used in boot camp on 18-year-olds, he says. But the violence our children are exposed to in the media begins to affect them at the age of 18 months, as they begin to discern and become desensitized to the brutality depicted on the screen. He notes that the Journal of the American Medical Association published the definitive epidemiological study on the impact of TV violence. “In every nation, region or city with television, there was an immediate explosion of violence on the playground, and within 15 years there is a doubling of the murder rate. Why 15 years? That is how long it takes for the brutalization of a three to five-year-old to reach the “prime crime age.” That’s how long it takes for you to reap what you have sown when you brutalize and desensitize a 3-year-old.”

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Demonstration in Tallahassee, FL, Feb. 21, 2018. Credit: Shutterstock.com

What I’ve failed to mention is that Grossman’s hometown is Jonesboro, Arkansas. About a year before his article was published, a school massacre occurred there, when four girls and a teacher were killed and ten others injured. The two boys who shot them were ages 11 and 13. It was the deadliest school shooting in the country until, a month before his article appeared, the massacre at Columbine happened. And that was the deadliest high school shooting until the recent school massacre in Florida.

After the Jonesboro shooting, Grossman said that a teacher at the high school told him how her students reacted when informed about the shooting at the middle school. “They laughed,” she told him. Grossman calls this classical conditioning. Children watch images of human suffering and death and learn to associate it with whatever enticing products are being sold on the commercials. “A similar reaction happens all the time in movie theaters when there is bloody violence. The young people laugh and cheer and keep right on eating popcorn and drinking pop. We have raised a generation of barbarians who have learned to associate violence with pleasure, like the Romans cheering and snacking as the Christians were slaughtered in the Colosseum,” Grossman wrote.

Operant conditioning, says Grossman, is the method the military and law enforcement uses to make killing a conditional response. “Whereas target training in World War II used bull’s-eye targets, now soldiers learn to fire at realistic, man-shaped silhouettes that pop up in their field of view–that’s the stimulus. The trainees only have a split second to engage the target, and then it drops. Stimulus-response–soldiers or police officers experience hundreds of repetitions of this. Later, when they’re out on the battlefield, or a police officer is walking a beat, and somebody pops up with a gun, they will shoot reflexively–and shoot to kill. Seventy-five to 80 percent of the shooting on the modern battlefield is the result of this kind of stimulus-response training.”

“Every time a child plays an interactive point-and-shoot video game, he is learning the exact same conditional reflex and motor skills,” Grossman noted.” This process is extraordinarily powerful and frightening. The result is ever more homemade pseudo sociopaths who kill reflexively and show no remorse. Our children are learning to kill and learning to like it.”

Role modeling is another method used to teach people to kill. In the military, Grossman says, it is the drill sergeant who “personifies violence and aggression.” I suspect that Grossman and many of my readers will not agree with me but who are the role models most likely to influence impressionable young minds? Just turn on your TV if you’ve missed these serial killers, but I’ll name just a few: George Bush I and II, Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Madeleine Albright, Barack Obama, Donald Trump. Not to mention most of the members of Congress. But they didn’t fire the guns, you say? Oh, of course not. Too messy, all that blood.

In my estimation, kids lose either way. If they embrace these role models, it means they aspire to follow in the footsteps of the Bushes and Obamas. Why not use a few of their school mates for target practice while they prepare for the real challenge of life in the greatest country on Earth: to dominate, oppress and slaughter as many innocent people as possible, while also devastating their homelands and holding the whole world hostage with the threat of a nuclear nightmare? If, on the other hand, they choose to reject these role models and the hypocrisy, hollowness and horror that their supposedly “civilized” culture has to offer, then they are opting to live a life of profound alienation and exile. Paul Goodman wrote about this existential dilemma in the 50s and 60s. He called it Growing Up Absurd, but who reads him anymore?

Teach Your Children Well, and that we do. But not in the way Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young probably had in mind. Kids are not stupid. They are perceptive and can see right through the dishonesty and hypocrisy and double standards of the adult world, the do as I say, not as I do. Like when Bill and Hillary, the darlings of American liberals, preached “it takes a village to raise a child” while simultaneously bombing several countries and killing a half million innocent children in Iraq. With lots of help from Madeleine (“it was worth it”) Albright.

Like many people who were children during the height of the Cold War, I remember the air raid drills, how we crouched under our puny wooden desks and prepared for the bombs to fall. They never did. But today children do similar drills in their schools to prepare for the more likely eventuality that one of their own classmates or some other youngster will go on a shooting rampage.

I can’t help thinking that, at some level, these two dreadful rituals, a half century apart, are intrinsically related.

When Nikolas Cruz, 19, walked into his former high school in Parkland, Florida to commit his wanton act of depravity, it was Valentine’s Day, the day of love. It was also Ash Wednesday, the Christian holy day for peace. He had an AR-15 in his hands and wore a maroon shirt with the logo from the Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program as he proceeded to murder 17 students and school staff. It was the 18th school shooting in the country this year, according to the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. That’s 18 school shootings in a month and a half; fortunately, no one was injured in almost half the shootings.

NPR journalist and commentator Scott Simon had this to say a few days later: “We can and should add up the number of students and teachers who are killed in school shootings and not forget their names, or forget the gift of their lives. But the casualties of school shootings don’t just include those killed or wounded. Each child who has to run for their life from their own school, each parent who has felt a stab in their heart to hear a child is in danger and even children and parents who may be thousands of miles away from the crime but terrified by it, have been inflicted with fear.

“I have covered enough gang shootings, civil wars and mob murders, and interviewed too many survivors of school shootings to believe some magic new law could make gangs, criminals, psychopaths, the mentally ill and anyone else who shouldn’t have guns line up to surrender them. But the Congressional Research Service says there are already more than 300 million guns in the United States. Should those who blame many mass shootings on poor access to mental health counseling be comfortable that Americans have mass access to so many guns?”

Exactly two weeks before the school shooting in Florida, I attended a presentation by the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort (WAVE) on the outskirts of Milwaukee. The anti-gun group provided a power point with a daunting parade of statistics on gun ownership in America and the futility of trying to achieve domestic safety or security with more guns.

Recent data from the Small Arms Survey and Congressional Research Service shows that there are now 112.6 guns for every 100 people in the United States, a gun ownership rate that has roughly doubled since 1968 and the highest in the world. Has the rise in gun ownership made our citizens safer? Statistics show that 82 percent of firearm deaths (in 23 higher-income countries) occur in the US. And 91 percent of all children (ages 0-14) killed by guns live in the US, as well as 90 percent of all women. There were 300 mass shootings in the United States in 2017, but most gun deaths occur “in the privacy of one’s own home.” The WAVE people pointed out that the number of American soldiers killed in battle since the Revolution, roughly 664,560, is about the same as the number of men, women and children killed in their homes in the last 20 years.

The chickens have surely come home to roost. Or maybe you reap what you sow is a more apt axiom?

Just now, I turn on the internet and learn that a Missouri youth baseball team is holding an AR-15 raffle. The coach says the fundraiser will go on, despite heavy criticism. Teach Your Children Well. But the children are pushing back, in a good way. Rising up and speaking out against the hypocrisy. They are organizing protests and there is a die-in in front of the White House.

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Rally to protest and change gun laws, Tallahassee, FL. Credit: KMH Photovideo/Shutterstock.com

Two days after the Florida shooting, the Associated Press revealed that the NRA has been providing grants and other support to schools across the country for their ROTC programs. There are over 1,700 high school ROTC programs in the country. They receive support from the US military, as well as $2.2 million across 30 states from the NRA Foundation, according to the AP. More than $400,000 of that was in cash grants. A total of 18 schools in Florida received NRA donations in 2016, the highest of any state.


Nikolas Cruz was a cadet with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School ROTC team. He reportedly excelled in the air-rifle marksmanship program that was supported by a grant from the NRA.

The same day as the shooting, Bess Kalb, a writer for the Jimmy Kimmel Live TV show, started publicly responding to the parade of politicians and lawmakers who were tweeting condolences over the Florida murders, taking them to task for taking money from the NRA. As Kalb pointed out, the Congressmen were busy praying and weeping elephant tears over the latest school tragedy while lining their pockets with the NRA’s blood money. Here’s a few from her list:

  • Senator Marco Rubio, praying, $3,303,064 from NRA
  • Senator Cory Gardner, heartbroken, $3,879,064 from NRA
  • Senator Rob Portman, also heartbroken, $3,061,941 from NRA
  • Senator Bill Cassidy, praying, $2,861,047 from NRA
  • Senator Thom Tillis, praying, $4,418,012 from NRA
  • Congressman Ken Burk, devastated and praying, $800,544
  • Senator Joni Ernst, praying, $3,124,213 from NRA
  • Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, heartbroken and praying. GOP candidates took $17,385,437 from NRA in 2015-16 election cycle, not counting $21 million to Donald Trump.

“Sorry to be crass, but we have the motherfucking receipts,” Kalb tweeted at 4 pm on February 14th.

Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut , who had been elected just prior to the Sandy Hook massacre, slammed his colleagues on the Senate floor just after the Florida shooting: “This happens nowhere else other than the United States of America,” he said. “This epidemic of mass slaughter … It only happens here, not because of coincidence, not because of bad luck, but as a consequence of our inaction.”

Fr. Robert Drinan, a principled congressman of the type so rare today, had said in 2003 that the NRA held a compelling power over the members of Congress. Perhaps it would be more precise to say that it is a compelling power of money over morality.

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Another kind of home front violence that has reached near epidemic proportions in recent years is the killing of citizens by law enforcement officers.

In 2017, police in the US killed 1,147 people, according to a report, Mapping Police Violence. The Washington Post, which maintains a running tally, put the number killed last year at a little below one thousand. In any case, killing by cops does not appear to be lessening, despite all the public attention. The Post reported that there were 24 more fatal shootings last year than the year before and that mental illness played a role in a quarter of the incidents.

Just a few months ago, nine police officers in Vermont surrounded a 32-year-old white man near the high school he had once attended. The man was holding a realistic-looking BB gun, was a drug addict, and may have been suicidal. After a long standoff, the nine officers pumped him full of bullets as he stood passively on a football field. There was video of the execution and students inside the school took photos. A crisis negotiation team was present, but supposedly there was no indication of any negotiations or meaningful communication with the suspect. Two of the officers had been involved in another killing of a 32-year-old man just last summer by five officers. A crisis intervention team was also present at that incident.

This past September, Magdiel Sanchez, a 35-year-old deaf man was shot and killed by police outside his home in Oklahoma City. Sanchez was on his porch, carrying a metal walking stick, when officers arrived and one cop fired multiple shots at him. Neighbors shouted at the police that Sanchez was unable to hear, but to no avail.

A neighbor said that Sanchez had developmental disabilities and was non-verbal. “He didn’t speak, he didn’t hear, mainly it is hand movements. That’s how he communicates. I believe he was frustrated trying to tell them what was going on,” the neighbor said. Maybe it was his “hand movements” that got Sanchez killed.

Just recently, a police officer won a $175,000 settlement with a West Virginia municipality. The officer, Stephen Mader, had been fired by the city. His crime? Opting to talk to rather than shoot a citizen.

Mader, a Marine vet who had served in Afghanistan, had responded to a domestic disturbance call and found the suspect, Ronald Williams Jr., holding an unloaded handgun. Williams was “visibly choked up” and told Mader to shoot him. The officer determined that Williams was not a threat and tried to de-escalate the situation. Then two other police officers arrived at the scene and one of them shot and killed Williams. The police department terminated Mader for “apparent difficulties in critical incident reasoning.”

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New York City, N.Y. Credit: Brent Eysler/Shutterstock.com

This spring, police in Sacramento, California shot Stephon Clark seven times from behind as he was running into his grandmother’s backyard. Police officers opened fire on Clark, a 22-year-old black man, after shouting “gun, gun, gun.” Clark staggered sideways and fell on his stomach while officers continued to fire. After twenty shots, the officers called to him, apparently thinking he might still be alive and armed. When they finally approached him, they found no gun, just a cellphone. A physician determined it took three to ten minutes for Clark to die; police waited about five minutes before rendering medical aid.

And just a couple weeks ago, police in East Pittsburgh shot 17-year-old Antwon Rose, Jr. three times in the back and killed him. He too was unarmed. After the shooting, a poem that Rose wrote for a high school English class circulated on social media. The poem read, in part:

I am confused and afraid. I wonder what path I will take. I hear that there’s only two ways out. I see mothers bury their sons. I want my mom to never feel that pain. I am confused and afraid.

With the year only half over, the Washington Post’s running tally indicated that nearly 500 people had already been killed by police. The Post documented more than 980 deaths at the hands of police in 2017, while the Guardian put the number at more than 1,090.

But just in case you think black lives are cheap in this country, think again. Juries are willing to pay a handsome price as recompense when police kill a black man. Like the case in Florida where white deputies shot and killed a black man in his garage. The jury recently found the officers not at fault but generously awarded the dead man’s family $4.00. One dollar was for funeral costs and one dollar for each of the man’s three young children.

In 2015, the Washington Post did a massive study, working with researchers from Bowling Green State University, examining data since 2005 on all police officers who faced charges after a fatal shooting. Officers who actually faced charges accounted for only a small fraction of fatal police shootings, and few officers suffered any consequences. In an overwhelming majority of cases where an officer was charged, the victim was unarmed.

Rally for Justice - CTA Anti-Racism Team member Myra Brown, Rochester, NY

Rev. Myra Brown, ordained priest and member of Call to Action Anti-Racism Team, Rochester, New York. Copyright photo by Tom Boswell

Among the officers charged for fatal shootings in the decade the Post examined, more than three-quarters were white and two-thirds of their victims were minorities, all but two of them black. Nearly all other cases involved black officers who killed black victims.

The Post found that, even in the most blatant situations, the majority of officers whose cases are resolved have been acquitted. Even when they are convicted or plead guilty, their sentence is usually light. Prosecutors are reluctant to prosecute police officers and juries are reluctant to punish them.

Prosecutors usually insist on compelling evidence to pursue a case in court. In half the criminal cases identified by the Post, forensic and autopsy evidence indicated the unarmed suspects had been shot in the back. In a third of the cases where officers faced charges, video evidence showed the slain suspect had posed no threat when they were killed. In nearly a quarter of the cases, the officers’ colleagues gave statements testifying that the officer opened fire even though the suspect posed no danger.

In one of these cases, not yet resolved at the time of the study, a white police officer in Cleveland was indicted for killing a pair of black suspects after a grand jury reviewed a wide range of evidence, including nearly two dozen video recordings. The two suspects had driven by a police station when their car backfired. Officers mistook the sound for gunfire and 62 police vehicles raced in pursuit. The suspects, later found to be under the influence of drugs, were surrounded in a school parking lot by police. Eleven officers got out of their cars and formed a semicircle around the pairs’ auto. The officers opened fire, shooting 139 times. The officer who was indicted fired 34 shots at the car, then climbed onto its hood and fired 15 more times at close range through the windshield.

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Action in Solidarity with Ferguson demonstrators, Toronto, Canada. Credit: nisargmediaproductions/shutterstock.

Anyone who is not aware by now that our police departments are becoming increasingly militarized and increasingly violent must be living in la-la land. Unfortunately, it appears that there are quite a number of people who claim citizenship in that euphoric country. For a number of years, I lived in a rural region south of Madison, Wisconsin. Sprinkled like dandelions all over the lawns in the small towns and on the farms the last few years were signs asserting I Back the Badge or I Stand with the Blue.

Signs like these are springing up all over the country, it seems, but these were produced by the Janesville Gazette (and its radio affiliates), the daily newspaper in Paul Ryan’s hometown. Do the people who post these signs really know what they signify, in the context of what is happening in our country today? I suspect that maybe they have an inkling.  The ominous slogan I Back the Badge is a euphemism for Law and Order, which is a euphemism for Might Over Right, which is a euphemism for White Over Right, which is a euphemism for fascism is right around the corner. Thank you, Janesville Gazette.

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a war correspondent who reported from more than 50 countries, a Presbyterian minister and a Princeton University professor. Among his eleven books is one titled War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. I quote him often in this blog.

Four years ago, in one of his regular posts on the Truthdig website, Hedges wrote about The Rhetoric of Violence. He started with a litany of violent acts: nine people killed and 35 others wounded in shootings on one weekend in Chicago; a man arrested for firing on motorists on Kansas City-area highways; three people, including a child, murdered at two Jewish-affiliated facilities in Kansas, leading to the arrest of a white supremacist; and armed militias in Nevada forcing the federal government to retreat so rancher Cliven Bundy could continue to graze his cattle on public land. “All this happened over a span of only nine days in the life of a country where more than 250 people are shot every day,” he wrote. “In America, violence and the threat of lethal force are the ways we communicate.

“Violence–the preferred form of control by the state–is an expression of our hatred, self-loathing and lust for vengeance. And this bloodletting will increasingly mark a nation in terminal decline.

“Violence … has a long and coveted place in US history,” he continued. “Vigilante groups including slave patrols … gangs of strikebreakers … and the Ku Klux Klan, which boasted more than 3 million members between 1915 and 1944 … formed and shaped America. Heavily armed mercenary paramilitaries, armed militias such as the Oath Keepers and the anti-immigration extremist group, Ranch Rescue, along with omnipotent and militarized police forces, are parts of a seamless continuation of America’s gun culture and tradition of vigilantism.”

The reason given by vigilante groups for the need to bear arms is that these weapons protect us from tyranny and keep us safe and secure, “but history does not support this contention,” Hedges argued, citing cases such as the Communist Party during the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany and citizens of Iraq and Yugoslavia. “I watched in Iraq and Yugoslavia as heavily armed units encircled houses and those inside walked out with hands in the air, leaving their assault rifles inside. And neither will American families engage in shootouts should members of the US Army or SWAT teams surround their homes. When roughly 10,000 armed miners at Blair Mountain in West Virginia rose up in 1921 for the right to form unions and held gun thugs and company militias at bay, the government called in the Army. The miners were not suicidal. When the Army arrived, they disbanded.

“America’s vigilante violence, rather than a protection from tyranny, is an expression of the fear by white people, especially white men, of the black underclass. This underclass has been enslaved, lynched, imprisoned and impoverished for centuries. The white vigilantes do not acknowledge the reality of this oppression, but at the same time they are deeply worried about  retribution directed against whites. Guns, for this reason, are easily available to white people while gun ownership is largely criminalized for blacks. The hatred expressed by vigilante groups for people of color, along with Jews and Muslims, is matched by their hatred for the college-educated elite, who did not decry the steady impoverishment of the working class. People of color, along with those who espouse the liberal social values of the college-educated elites, including gun control, are seen by the vigilantes as contaminants to society that must be removed to restore the nation to health …

“Our inability to formulate a coherent, militant , revolutionary ideology, meanwhile, leaves us powerless in the face of mounting violence. We wander around in a daze. We lack the toughness and asceticism of the radicals who went before us–the Wobblies, the anarchists, the socialist and the communists. We preach a mishmash of tolerance and Oprah-like hope and exude a fuzzy faith in the power of the people. And because of this we are run over like frogs blindly hopping up and down a road.

“Our most cherished civil liberties have been taken from us. Our incomes are in free fall while obscene wealth is in the hands of a few oligarchs. We are watched and monitored by the most pervasive security and surveillance system in human history. We are hemmed in by archipelagos of prisons. And the ecosystem on which we depend for life is being destroyed. And, through it all, we are bombarded with propaganda, manipulated and mocked by our elites as we dance in their choreographed political charades.

“We must begin to speak in the language of revolution, not accommodation. We must direct the rage that grips huge swaths of the population not against the oppressed but against the structures of corporate power that create oppression. We will have to begin from scratch, for America has no revolutionary intellectual tradition, with the exception of Thomas Paine. We have produced notable anarchists–Randolph Bourne, Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman and Noam Chomsky.” (I would add Paul Goodman.) “We have an array of great black radicals, including W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, James Cone and Cornel West, as astute about the evils of empire as white supremacy. We once had some fine socialists, Eugene V. Debs among them. But we lack genuine revolutionists such as Alexander Herzen, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg, Antonio Gramsci and Frantz Fanon, and because of this we are losing the class war …

“A revolutionary language and consciousness must replace the current murderous nihilism. The government is banking on the fact that we are not hard-wired for revolution. The state, for this reason, permits the population to load itself up with weapons, including assault rifles, because it understands that they are almost never turned against centers of power. There are some 310 million firearms in the United States, including 114 million handguns, 110 million rifles and 86 million shotguns. There is no reliable data on the number of military-style assault weapons in private hands, but one estimate is 1.5 million. The United States has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world … We shoot each other or we shoot ourselves. Of the 282 people shot every day in the US, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, 32 die in murders and 51 commit suicide.

“As we build a revolutionary consciousness, we must never place our faith in violence, [emphasis added] even as we understand that violence, especially by vigilantes, criminals and militarized police forces, will be used against us. Our strength is our truth. And this truth terrifies our power elites. Truth, not force, is the real power of revolutionaries … Revolutions do not succeed because of violence, although violence is often a component of revolutions. The glorification of violence as the principal agent of change is a lie. Revolutions succeed because of revolutionary thinking. Such consciousness takes years to build. It slowly, invisibly burrows into the organs of power. It leads those on the inside to defect to the revolution. And once that happens, state power crumbles.”

Next time: Afghanistan: Slaughtering Hearts & Minds in the Longest War

There’s No Business Like War Business

This is the third installment in a series on issues of War and Peace.  Future posts will examine the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, violence at home, and the US addiction to war.

Remember that iconic line from The Graduate? Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) has recently graduated from college and his parents are throwing a cocktail party in his honor. A friend of Ben’s parents, a Mr. McGuire, pulls Ben outdoors to the patio, alongside the swimming pool:

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

Well, Mr. McGuire may have been right, even prophetic. There was a great future in plastics, as it turned out. But it was nothing compared to the business potential of another simple little word: war.

It was six years before The Graduate hit the big screen that Dwight D. Eisenhower gave what came to be known as his farewell address to the nation. In the speech, Eisenhower coined the term military-industrial complex. Looking back, it seems apparent that Ike’s insights and misgivings were also prophetic. The military-industrial complex has become a big business, unlike any other business in its magnitude and malignity. It’s a business with a few big winners and a lot of big losers.

Here’s an excerpt of what he said in that farewell speech:

“We now stand ten years past the midpoint of a century that has witnessed four major wars among great nations. Three of these involved our own country. Despite these holocausts America is today the strongest, the most influential and most productive nation in the world. Understandably proud of this pre-eminence, we yet realize that America’s leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.

“Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

Ike and Military Industrial Complex“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist … Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose. Because this need is so sharp and apparent, I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment. As one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war—as one who knows that another war could utterly destroy this civilization which has been so slowly and painfully built over thousands of years—I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.”

While Eisenhower acknowledged the US was “compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions,” I wonder if he ever imagined it would lead, not to peace and security, but to permanent war? Or that this new industry, this military-corporate complex, in its insatiable lust for profit, would soon propel and dictate foreign policy? Or that the very notion of disarmament would become little more than a chimera because a major market strategy of this new industry would be to arm a good portion of the world?

It is only since World War II that the US has relied on private industry to produce most of its weaponry. I learned this in a 1987 newsletter from the Center for Defense Information (CDI), an organization founded in 1971 by retired military officers. (CDI merged with the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) in 2012.) Before the “Great War,” the nation used a mix of government-owned factories and private corporations to make its weapons. The “private sector” has accounted for the vast majority of arms production since the Korean War.

Making weapons was already a very big business back in 1987—30 years ago— according to the CDI newsletter. About 35,000 businesses received contracts directly from the Defense Department and another 150,000 or so were subcontractors. Most US industrial corporations had their hands in military work.

If the US arms industry were a national economy, CDI reported, it would be (in 1987) the 13th largest in the world. Ten giant enterprises accounted for a third of all weapons contracts. The top contractors were heavily subsidized by taxpayers, using $40 billion worth of government property free of charge.

Military sales were nearly $185 billion in 1985: $166 billion to the Pentagon, $6 billion to the Department of Energy and $13 billion in arms exports. By then, six major aerospace firms had become dependent on Uncle Sam for at least 60 percent of their sales. Lockheed, for instance, had evolved from a commercial aircraft business to “essentially an appendage of DoD, with 88 percent of its sales to the US government,” CDI noted. “These corporations have a vital interest in the continued sale of arms and bring all of their enormous economic and political leverage to bear to promote military and congressional support for their weapons programs.”

In the absence of effective competition in the arms industry, the profit motive gives corporations the incentive to sell as many weapons at as high a price as possible. A massive increase in military spending that began in 1979 made for a lucrative business for arms manufacturers. Between 1980 and 1985, annual military sales exploded from $84 billion to $163 billion.

Hard to believe that an industry that profits off of death, destruction and devastation could also be dishonest, but that seems to have been the case. “In the torrent of spending, the industry was awash in cash and scandal, registering record profits paralleled by record numbers of cases of contractor fraud and waste,” CDI reported. “Fifty-nine of the top 100 contractors were under investigation by 1986.”

A comprehensive 1985 study by the DoD found that defense contractors were getting a fair profit as a percentage of sales, but, as a return on assets, the profits were “grossly out of line.” The standard logic in business is: the greater the risk, the greater should be the profit. But in the arms business, CDI noted, contractors get higher profits for lower risk. The government and taxpaying public assume all the risk.

Of course, waste, fraud and high profits proved not to be a temporary aberration in the arms business. In an issue of the Nukewatch Quarterly in late 2010, my friend John La Forge wrote about a “war” on military waste that the Pentagon waged for one day … and lost. Donald Rumsfeld had just taken over as Pentagon chief and admitted in a press conference: “According to some estimates, we cannot track $2.3 trillion dollars in transactions.” (That’s about $8,000 for each child, woman and man in the country, La Forge noted.)

Rumsfeld blamed the mess on “the Pentagon bureaucracy” and called the military-industrial complex a serious threat, “a matter of life and death.” (Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill wrote about this in more depth in the preface to his book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army). Unfortunately, Rumsfeld’s press conference took place the day before 9/11. Soon after, George Bush announced a military budget that called for $48 billion in new spending. Before long another trillion dollars (one thousand billion) would go missing, La Forge noted. He cited a report from the San Francisco Chronicle from May, 2003, that the Pentagon’s efforts in cost control failed to even control the fiscal control programs. The government’s non-partisan Government Accounting Office (GAO) reviewed the Pentagon’s Corporate Information Management System (CIM), an attempt to consolidate 2,000 overlapping systems used for billing, inventory, payroll, etc. After spending over $20 billion, the CIM initiative was scrapped, the GAO said.

Rumsfeld and Bush

Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush

Then came the news that the US had flown nearly $12 billion in shrink-wrapped $100 bills from New York City to Baghdad in 2004, the year after the invasion of Iraq. The cash, about 281 million bills weighing 363 tons, was shipped in C-130 cargo planes, with deliveries occurring once or twice a month. The biggest shipment of $2,401,600,000 happened on June 22, six days before the interim Iraqi government was to take control of Iraqi funds.

This biggest transfer of cash in the history of the Federal Reserve was revealed by a US congressional committee and reported in The Guardian of London in February, 2007. Rep. Henry Waxman, the committee’s chair and a critic of the war, said that the way the money had been handled was mind-boggling. “The numbers are so large that it doesn’t seem possible that they’re true,” he said. “Who in their right mind would send 363 tons of cash into a war zone?”

Cash payments were made from the back of pickup trucks and money was stashed in unguarded sacks in Iraqi ministry offices. One official was given $6.75 million in cash and ordered to spend it in one week, the Guardian reported. The US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was supposed to appoint an independent, certified public accounting firm to oversee the expenditures. Instead, the CPA hired an obscure consulting firm that operated out of a private home in San Diego. The special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction found that the company “did not perform a review of internal controls as required by the contract.”

Paul Bremer, head of the CPA and responsible for much of the chaos that ensued after the US occupation of Iraq, excused the mismanagement of the funds. He rationalized that the money, which came from Iraqi oil sales, surplus funds from the UN oil-for-food-programme and seized Iraqi assets, actually belonged to Iraqis and not US taxpayers.

Retired Admiral David Oliver, Bremer’s financial adviser, when asked by the BBC news what had happened to the funds, answered: “I have no idea. I can’t tell you whether or not the money went to the right things or didn’t, nor do I actually think it’s important.”

Although the billions of dollars that disappeared was supposedly Iraqi money, it is likely that Bremer and his ilk cared not a whit for the billions more in US taxpayer money that was wasted on the war. Did I say billions?

Sorry, my mistake. Would it were only so. Let’s try trillions.

Twenty days after publishing the exposé about the pallets stacked with shrink-wrapped $100 bills, The Guardian ran another article on the true cost of the war in Iraq. It was an interview with Joseph Stiglitz, who had co-authored a book on that subject and would soon be testifying before Congress. After several years of painstaking research and calculations, Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes concluded that this second Iraq war would cost the United States “a conservatively-estimated $3 trillion. The rest of the world, including Britain, will probably account for about the same amount again,” the article reported.

Stiglitz is a Nobel prize-winning economist who spent four years on Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers and another three as chief economist at the World Bank. At the time the Guardian interviewed him, the US had already been in Iraq for five years, longer than the country had spent in either world war. Daily military operations had already cost taxpayers more than 12 years in Vietnam and twice as much as the Korean War.

At that time, the US was spending $16 billion per month on running costs alone in Iraq and Afghanistan, equal to the entire annual budget for the United Nations. Many more millions were falling through the cracks at the Department of Defense, which “had failed every official audit of the past ten years. The DoD’s finances, based on an accounting system inaccurate for anything larger than a grocery store, are so inadequate that it is impossible to know exactly how much is being spent, or on what,” Stiglitz charged.

The economist said there were a number of reasons why the Bush administration and Pentagon’s estimates for the cost of the war were deceptively low. For instance, the government claimed the infamous “surge” would only cost $5.6 billion, but it counted only combat troops, not the 15,000 to 28,000 support troops that would be required. Official tallies neglect to count the cost of death payments or caring for the wounded, Stiglitz said, even though the ratio of wounded to dead in Iraq–seven to one–was the highest in US history.

And then there were the costs related to Bush and Rumsfeld’s new strategy of privatization of war-making. The fact that a private contractor working as a security guard gets about $400,000 a year, for example, as opposed to a soldier, who might get about $40,000. The administration insisted on “sole-source bidding” to award lucrative contracts to corporations like Halliburton while forcing free market and privatization ideals on Iraq. Many reconstruction jobs went to expensive American corporations rather than cheaper Iraqi ones, and American companies would hire cheap labor from countries like Nepal, while one of every two Iraqi men were out of work.

While many believe, perhaps rightly, that Bush bombed Iraq for oil, Stiglitz and Bilmes pointed out that cheap oil was not an outcome of the war. The price of oil climbed from $25 to $100 a barrel in five years, a benefit for oil-producing countries and contractors, but no one else. The economists projected that the US would pay an extra $1.6 trillion more on oil alone by 2015.

The cost to oil-importing countries in Europe and the Far East would be nearly as much, not to mention the trillions the rest of the world would shoulder due to a devastated Iraqi economy, tens of thousands of Iraqis dead, and the price of neighboring countries absorbing thousands of refugees.

Stiglitz and Bilmes calculated what just one trillion dollars wasted on the war could have paid for: eight million housing units, 15 million public school teachers, scholarships to university for 43 million students, or healthcare for 530 million children for a year. The entire three trillion could have fixed America’s social security problem for half a century.

When Donald Trump delivered his first joint address to Congress a year ago, he called for a staggering increase in Pentagon spending in order to “rebuild the military.” Every few years a president or members of Congress demand more funds for the Pentagon in order to “rebuild” our fighting forces, even as the military budget grows steadily, along with the waste and corruption.

An email letter from the Council for a Livable World the day after the President’s speech pointed out that US forces are hardly under-funded. “The United States spends over $600

1024px-The Pentagon

Photo by Master Sgt. Ken Hammond, US Air Force

billion on defense every year–more than the next seven countries combined,” the letter said. And there is no transparency about how the money is spent, the Council added, claiming “the Pentagon has never successfully completed an audit … In 2016, the Defense Department’s Inspector General reported that the Army made $2.8 trillion worth of inaccurate or wrongful accounting adjustments in one quarter alone–and $6.5 trillion for the year–to make it appear that their books were balanced.”

Nobody probably knows for sure exactly how much the US spends (or wastes) on the military, and how that compares to other nations, but the fact is that there is no comparison. In his State of the Union address in January, 2016, President Obama said “We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined.” The Peter G. Peterson Foundation, (citing sources such as the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), concurred with the president, naming the eight trailing countries, in order of spending, as: China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, the United Kingdom, Japan and Germany. Total US military spending for 2016 was $611 billion, contrasted with $595 billion for the other eight nations.

Shuffling back through a pile of papers in my file folder on the military budget, I see that the situation hasn’t really changed in decades, no matter who controlled Congress or who resided in the White House. Democrat President Clinton and the Republican-led Congress back in 1995 were taking pains to “balance the budget” by slashing federal spending for housing, job training, school lunches, education and other domestic programs. But they made sure that the military was spared the axe.

The Center for Defense Information reported that Clinton proposed a Fiscal Year (FY) 1996 budget that included $258 billion in new “budget authority” and $261 billion in projected “outlays” for National Defense. The Administration’s six-year projection of military spending through FY 2001 was set at $1.6 trillion.

CDI noted that Clinton’s new military budget request was a full $20 billion more in current dollars than was spent on the military in the 1980s, a time of great Cold War tension in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. “America’s military budget is nearly as large as the military budgets of all the other nations in the world combined,” reported CDI. “It is more than three times the military budget of Russia, six times that of Japan, and eight times that of Germany.”

A 1999 newsletter from a Colorado peace group, borrowing CDI data, indicated that the US military budget was then five times greater than the seven countries usually perceived by the Pentagon as most likely adversaries: Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.

In 2004, a group of 16 UN-appointed military experts reported that global military spending would rise to nearly $950 billion by the end of the year, up from $900 billion the year before. By contrast, they said, rich nations spend only $50 to 60 billion on development aid each year. In other words, (employing very primitive math), nations were using only five percent as much of their wealth to help each other as they were using to kill each other.

The 2004 spending estimates would be “substantially higher if the costs of major armed conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq were included,” the UN experts said. The US Congress had authorized spending of about $25 billion for Afghanistan and Iraq that year, but the figure was expected to more than double by years’ end.

The same article noted that the US budget for 2005 would allocate $1.15 billion a day, or $11,000 per second, for “defense,” according to Frida Berrigan, a senior research associate at the World Policy Institute’s Arms Trade Resource Center. The defense allocation does not include the cost of ongoing fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, about $15 billion per month, Berrigan said. “These costs are paid through emergency supplementals,” she said, of which Congress had already signed off on $190 billion worth of “emergencies” for war and occupation in these two countries.american-imperialism-military-spending cartoon

It’s important to recognize that total funds for “national defense” are not easy to calculate and no two organizations calculate them the same. The newsletter for the Wisconsin chapter of Peace Action, in late 2006, also borrowing information from CDI, reported that Congress had just passed a $377.6 billion Defense Appropriation bill for FY 2007. It had also voted for an additional $70 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the brief article pointed out that the figures are deceptive. The appropriations bill did not include $17 billion for nuclear weapon expenditures by the Department of Energy, nor $4.8 billion for “other defense-related activities,” nor $58.9 billion for military construction and “quality of life” programs President Bush had requested.

So the total was going to be $458 billion plus $70 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which equals $528.3 billion. “Are we done yet?” Peace Action asked. Nope. According to CDI, another $60 billion would be requested for the war in FY 2007 and, when all was said and done, the final figure for defense would be between $576.9 billion and $596.9 billion. Give or take a few billion.

Do you know where you tax dollars go? Not a chance. But you can bet your bottom dollar that the vast majority go to death and destruction.

Another Peace Action Wisconsin newsletter in March, 2008 informed us that Bush II was not done yet. He was proposing a FY 2009 budget of $515.4 billion for the DoD, which would be the biggest military budget since WWII, (adjusted for inflation). Of course, that budget did not include $140 billion projected costs for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor $17.1 billion for nuclear weapons, nor $40 billion for Homeland Security nor … well, you get the picture.

In another article from the same period, Robert Scheer wrote on Truthdig.com that “Bush totally betrayed his campaign 2000 promise to reshape the post-Cold War US military when he seized upon the 9/11 attack as an opportunity to reverse the “peace dividend” that his father had begun to return to taxpayers. Instead Bush II ushered in the most profligate underwriting of weapons systems that are grotesquely irrelevant for combatting terrorism.”

But Bush was on his way out the door and Obama and Clinton were campaigning for the right to take over. “Curb your enthusiasm,” Scheer cautioned. “Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have treated the military budget as sacrosanct with their Senate votes and their campaign rhetoric.”

Now it’s January, 2009. Deepak Chopra is writing a memo to Barack Obama, who is now in the White House. He tells the president how “America has been on a war footing since the day after Pearl Harbor, 67 years ago. We spend more on our military than the next 16 countries combined … Since aerospace and military technologies remain the United States’ most destructive export, fostering wars around the world, what steps can we take to reverse that trend and build a peace-loving economy?”

He outlines nine steps Obama can take. Number four is to convert military bases to housing for the poor. Five is to phase out all foreign military bases. (The US had over 1,000 in 120 countries, costing $140 million to maintain. China had none.)

Deepak is a great dude, don’t get me wrong. He’s reportedly “one of the world’s greatest leaders in the field of mind-body medicine,” but what kind of Kool-Aid was he drinking? Needless to say, the president never got the memo.

April, 2009. Another Peace Action newsletter with the headline: Where is the Change? Obama Continues Bloated Military Budget. It’s beyond bloated. It’s over $700 billion a year and $6,000 per household, the article says. The Progressive Democrats of America say the military budget has increased by over 60% since 2001. The article ends by saying: “A rationale society would have the abolition of war as one of its primary goals. A rational society would try to minimize the use of scarce resources to produce weapons that, unlike all other products, are used optimally when they are not used at all.”

Sounds great, but we are a rational society. The rationale is money and profit. It’s a business, a better business than plastics. Who profits? The arms-makers, of course, but also the politicians. And the politicians rely on the arms-makers to help them buy votes.

One more article in that file folder, this time from the Washington Post. It’s still early 2009 and Obama is promising to fight defense spending he considers wasteful and inefficient. But who is he fighting with? None other than liberal Democrats. (You know, his own Peace Party, the one that all good liberals vote for rather than those nasty, brutish Republicans.)

It seems that Democrats had stuffed an estimated $524 million in defense earmarks (that the Pentagon did not request) into the appropriations bill, $220 million more than the Republicans did. It seems that 44 senators had begged Defense Secretary Robert Gates to build more F-22 Raptors, a fighter plane conceived during the Cold War that Pentagon officials said was not suited to 21st Century conflicts. It seems that most of these senators were Democrats.

It seems the Navy’s top brass had decided to stop producing their newest class of destroyers in response to classified intelligence reports highlighting their vulnerability. It seems that “seven Democratic senators quickly joined four Republicans to demand a reversal.” Within a month, Gates and the Navy changed course and endorsed production of another destroyer, at a cost of $2.7 billion.

“A lot of these weapons systems that are big-ticket items now have no purpose,” said the director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New American Foundation, a Washington think tank. “The Taliban doesn’t have an air force. China and Russia are at least a generation behind us.”

The problem, he was quoted as saying, is that the defense industry is dominated by a handful of large firms with offices or subcontractors in key congressional districts, and they play the political game extremely well.

One example was the F-22, an aircraft with a price tag of $145 million, one which senior defense officials noted had not been used in Iraq or Afghanistan. The fighter had been conceived in the 1980s and, even though Defense Secretary Gates said that building 183 of the planes was enough, 194 House members had signed a letter to continue the program. It seems that tens of thousands of jobs directly related to production of the F-22 were spread across 44 states. Those who signed the letter to build more planes read like a Who’s Who of liberal Dems: Joe Biden, Edward Kennedy, Patty Murray, Barbara Boxer, Christopher Dodd, Barbara Mikulski and Diane Feinstein.

During the 2008 election cycle, the Post article noted, more than half of the defense industry’s estimated campaign contributions of $25.4 million went to Democrats. Of the two committees that control military spending in the House, Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chair John Murtha (D-PA) garnered the most industry cash, $743,275. Armed Services Committee Chair Ike Skelton (D-MO) placed second with $268,799 in contributions.

Murtha added more than $100 million in earmarks to the FY 2008 defense bill, the article noted, nearly a fifth of the total inserted by all Democrats. Every earmark reflected a project the Pentagon did not seek in its budget request. Some of Murtha’s earmarks benefitted clients of a lobbying firm called PMA Group, under FBI investigation for possible violation of federal election law. PMA was run by a former Murtha aide and some of its clients were donors to his campaigns.

Murtha joined other Dems, including Boxer, in adding billions to the war budget for 15 Boeing C-17 cargo planes that the Pentagon did not request. “We have said we have enough, but members keep adding them to every spending bill,” a senior defense official complained.

The article also singled out Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Evan Bayh (D-IN) and Kennedy for adding nearly a billion dollars to the Pentagon budget for an alternate engine for a jet fighter that the Pentagon said was unnecessary. The plane was already $55 billion over budget. And Kennedy joined Senators John Kerry (D-MA), James Webb (D-VA), Herb Kohl (D-WI) and other Dems in demanding funding for a third unwanted and obsolete DDG-1000 Navy destroyer.

In 2011, Jim Wallis of Sojourners interviewed Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen and they talked at length about the military budget.

“Spending money on unnecessary weapons is taking away from our schools and hospitals and housing, and taking away the hopes of our children and the genius of our times,” Cohen said. “It’s just amazing to think about the huge expenditures of money on these unneeded weapons and what could be done with that same amount of money, if we used it to actually help people, especially people in poverty.”

Military spending accounted for 58 percent of the US discretionary spending budget for FY 2011, according to research by the National Priorities Project. Cohen pointed out that the US was spending five times as much on the military as its nearest competitor, China, which was also its biggest trading partner.

Which brings us all the way up to last fall, when the US Senate voted to increase military spending by $81 billion. In an article by Adam Johnson of FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), the author wondered where all the “deficit hawks” in the mainstream media had gone, the ones who badgered and berated Bernie Sanders for his campaign proposals for universal health care, free college and a living wage. “How will we pay for it?” they had demanded to know.

Just the increase in the military budget alone was greater than the total spent annually on state university tuition by every US student, Johnson pointed out. If the military budget had just stayed the same, “the US could have paid the tuition for every public college student, with $11 billion left over for board and books.”

Defense cartoon

Why were the media deficit hawks quiet now? Johnson asked. One answer, he suggested, was that their notion of policing the deficit probably meant “keeping government money out of the hands of the poor–and in the coffers of weapons makers, banks and other wealthy interest groups.”

Of course, the American taxpayer isn’t the only one purchasing all the weapons the arms industry churns out. There are plenty of foreign markets for made-in-America weapons of mass destruction. (If you’ve got a good product, why not share it with the whole world? No harm there.) Since the end of the Cold War, Uncle Sam has been the top salesman in the international arms trade. Last year, the State Department set a new record for clearing weapons sales, with nearly $76 billion cleared for sale.

That was certainly cheery news for those in the arms business. They were feeling quite perky as evidenced by an article in Defense News in September. A Pentagon spokesman said that “sales continue to be strong and continue to indicate the interest of our partners in seeking the quality products and services we offer.”

Remy Nathan, vice president of international affairs with the Aerospace Industries Association, commented that “any growth in defense trade is positive. It supports high-skill, high wage American jobs and funds innovation, lowers unit costs and delivers a better deal for the taxpayer.”

By jingo! That sounds swell. Not to mention all the side benefits of this booming industry, such as more murder, mayhem and devastation throughout the Middle East, millions of refugees, endless instability, and potential annihilation of  a region, if not the whole planet.

In an article a year ago, financial analysts Michael Sauter and Samuel Stebbins reported that the US sent nearly $10 billion worth of military vehicles and weapons systems to foreign governments in 2016. Uncle Sam is by far the world’s largest purveyor of armaments, surpassing countries like Russia and China by billions of dollars. In the past five years, over 100 nations have directly purchased aircraft, ships, armored vehicles and missiles from the US government.

So who are Uncle Sam’s best customers? Sweden, Switzerland, Finland and Costa Rica, perhaps? Guess again. The one place on the planet that needs weapons least, the most volatile region, the one that the US has done its dogged best to devastate for three decades or so: the Middle East.

A snippet from the Peace Action newsletter from December, 2000, begins to tell the story: how the US began flooding the Middle East with weapons in the 1990s, right after its first Gulf War. Over $51 billion in arms were peddled to this tormented region between 1992 and 1999 according to the Congressional Research Service.

Saudi Arabia led the way, with $27.8 billion in arms purchases, followed by Egypt, $8.7 billion; Kuwait, $4.9 billion; United Arab Emirates, $1.1 billion; and Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and Morocco with purchases in the millions. Oh, let’s not forget Israel, which bought $5.8 billion in arms, along with its annual gift of $6 billion in military aid. But Israel, as we know, is a western-style “democracy,” which just coincidentally is burdened with supporting a brutal occupation, so it needs all the help it can get.

An accompanying article in this newsletter noted that Israel would be getting Apache helicopters, Blackhawk helicopters and Beechcraft light patrol aircraft, mostly paid for with US funds. Uncle Sam attested that the arms sales would “contribute to the foreign policy and national security” of the US by helping a country that “continues to be an important force for political stability … in the Middle East.”

In their article last year, Sauter and Stebbins reported that 13 countries accounted for almost 70 percent of US arms exports. Using figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s Arms Transfers Database, the authors identified the countries that were the biggest winners in Uncle Sam’s 2016 arms bazaar.

Saudi Arabia led the list with $1.9 billion in arms imports from the US. Iraq was second with $893 million in purchases. Close behind were Australia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Israel, Italy and South Korea.

Saudi Arabia, that oil-rich beacon of democracy in the Middle East, had never spent more than about $600 million on US arms between 2006 and 2013. Then their spending shot up to well over $1 billion in 2014 and up to $1.9 billion in 2016. In the final weeks of his administration, Obama blocked the sale of 16,000 guided munitions kits to the Kingdom, amid growing concern over civilian casualties in Yemen.

But when Trump came to power, he opted to move forward with the sale and announced $110 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, with an additional $240 billion committed over a ten-year period. As Andrew Exum noted in an article in The Atlantic last May, many of these sales were already in the works under Obama.

“The Obama Administration spent eight years quietly selling a lot of arms to Saudi Arabia: When President Obama left office, for example, the United States had $100 billion in the foreign military sales pipeline with Saudi Arabia and, in 2011, had inked what was previously the largest arms sale in US history with the Kingdom–a $29 billion deal to sell F-15s to the Saudis,” wrote Exum.

“Overall, the Arab Gulf states went on a spending spree during the Obama years, and most of the money was spent on American arms,” he added.

What lesson did Exum want you to learn from this, at least if you consider yourself a “progressive elite” or a Democratic politician trying to get elected? Basically, that you need to get savvy and brag about all the billions of dollars in weapons that Democratic administrations are selling (or giving) to foreign countries. Why? Because Democrats need to win back working class voters, because Boeing employs 157,000 people, most of them in the US, because Lockheed Martin employs 97,000 workers, and because Raytheon employs another 60,000.

Oh, don’t get him wrong. Exum is not that crass. He expresses grudging admiration for Senator Chris Murphy, “one of the most eloquent and consistent critics of US arms sales in the Senate, even though his own state has a very robust defense industrial base.”

He even admits that he harbors “a lot of respect for these progressives and their values.” And he confides that he “spent too much time in Sunday school … not to feel a little uneasy about the business of selling weapons.” But business is business and politics is politics and people need jobs and, of course, the best way to create jobs is to make weapons to kill people and destroy countries and possibly incinerate the entire planet.

This is the liberal mainstream media speaking. I don’t know which is more pathetic and disgusting, the paucity of morality or the paucity of imagination and vision. Am I just another “progressive elite” who is “out of touch” with voters, or is it conceivable that the American workers who produce such marvelous instruments of destruction that the whole world wants to buy could also be trained to build schools and houses and hospitals and roads and bridges and mass transit systems and all the other things that our country so desperately needs?

Here’s one last clipping, from a Catholic Worker newsletter from 1999: The US Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of the ships used in Iraq, cost $5 billion dollars to build. I wonder what Ike would think if he were here today, after trying to warn us about the “military industrial complex”? Would he be proud of this $5 billion dollar warship with his name on it? Would his chest swell with pride to see what this nation has become?

The Draft and the Drone: Distancing Ourselves from War

The biggest mistake the peace movement ever made was probably to push for abolishing the draft. Ending the draft did nothing to eliminate war; but it did eliminate most resistance to war from those who were no longer in danger of losing their lives in one of America’s many imperial adventures.

When the draft ended, it was easy for the empire to fashion what was called a “professional army.”  This translates to mean an army composed of those with no better options than to serve as cannon fodder: the working class and the poor.

“When Nixon ends the draft, he doesn’t do it because he thinks having a professional army would be in the nation’s interest. What Nixon is trying to do is to basically cut the antiwar movement off at the knees, and his calculation was that by ending the draft, kids would get out of the streets and go back to class.”

That was Andrew Bacevich speaking with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now in August of 2008. He is a professor of history and international relations who also happens to be a retired colonel who spent 23 years in the U.S. Army. “We, the people, have so distanced ourselves from the professional army that unless you have a family member serving in uniform–and most people don’t–you don’t know where this military is, you don’t know what it’s like, and you really don’t have much say in the way it’s used,” Bacevich said.

“President Bush exploits that after 9/11 … for the first time in our history, when we go to war, instead of a president turning to the Congress and turning to the country and saying “We’re going to have to change the way we do business, because we’re at war,” President Bush actually says, “Go to Disney World. Go shopping ” … and the great majority of the American people basically did what Bush said and tuned the war out and allowed the burden to fall on a very small percentage of the population, which I find, frankly, morally objectionable.”

But even these cast-offs from capitalism–the poor and working class–will not be needed much longer. Who or what will replace them? The same thing that replaced them in the labor market, the marvels of modern technology. What better way to eliminate all resistance to war than to make soldiers obsolete?  Just as with the autonomous car, the future is just around the corner.

And what does it look like? Like a giant metal bat, only uglier. It’s called the Reaper, (as in Grim Reaper), and it is the progeny of another ugly machine called the Predator. Boeing proudly asserts it’s the “autonomous solution” to “dominate every domain.” (Have you ever noticed how everything sold nowadays is marketed as the solution but they never say what the problem is?) In this case, the problem is probably any people who happen to get in the way of US “national interests.”

What’s the price for this “solution”? Somewhere in the neighborhood of $16.9 million each, with an $11.8 billion “program cost.” I suspect a program means a specific military contract, but we all know what happens with these contracts, (cost overruns often reach the stratosphere), and these were 2013 figures.

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Predator drone firing laser guided Hellfire missile

But let’s not quibble about the cost. It’s probably worth every penny. The MQ-9 Reaper is the “primary offensive strike unmanned aerial vehicle for the U.S. Air Force” and has also been used by the Navy, CIA and even U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Since 1995 it’s been providing solutions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, Serbia, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria and Somalia.

Simple and sinister as it looks from the outside, the Reaper is loaded with all sorts of fancy, hi-tech gadgets: a “robust suite of visual sensors” for targeting, TV cameras, lasers and laser-guided munitions, synthetic aperture radar and, of course, Hellfire missiles, “which possess highly accurate, low-collateral damage, anti-armor and anti-personnel engagement capabilities.” And to top it off, the Reaper can be disassembled and stuffed in a single container for deployment worldwide. Sounds almost too good to be true.

And it is. Because  war is now pretty painless for the majority of the populace of this great peace-loving nation. No need to hear evil, see evil, smell evil or think evil. It’s all done far away, almost like magic, by faceless, autonomous machines. Go ahead; take a look at your hands. They’re as clean as mine, aren’t they? Not a speck of blood to be found.

And who more providential a person to have arrived on the scene to lead us into the land of innocence and oblivion than the Peace President? He was well-educated, affable, suave and articulate. What’s more, he had even been a community organizer, (working for the same national network that I did.) What liberal wouldn’t love him?

But before Obama came Clinton and Bush. The Predator drone was the brainchild of an Israeli aeronautical engineer who immigrated to the U.S. and began working on development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Early models of the drone were employed for reconnaissance in the war in Serbia and by 2001 the Predator was being used in Afghanistan.

Way back in 1976, President Gerald Ford had issued an executive order stating that No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination. This was in response to post-Watergate revelations that the CIA had staged many attempts on the life of Cuban President Fidel Castro. This prohibition was respected, for a while.

But after 9/11, the Bush Administration decided it would not allow the directive banning assassination to deter it from fighting the “war on terror.” The Washington Post reported on October 21, 2001, that Bush had signed an intelligence “finding” a year earlier instructing the CIA to engage in “lethal covert operations” to destroy Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda organization. White House and CIA lawyers argued the intelligence finding was constitutional because the ban on political assassination does not apply in wartime. Since 9/11, as we know, the country has been engaged in permanent war, undeclared or not.

The U.S. had about 200 drones in operation at the time of the 9/11 attacks and well over 7,500 by 2014. President Bush, some have said, deployed drones reluctantly, particularly in Pakistan.

But all that changed when the Peace President came to power. About five months before the end of Obama’s first term, writer Tom Engelhardt posted a story he titled Praying at the Church of St. Drone, in which he said that no matter whom voters chose in November they would be electing an assassin-in-chief. “An American global killing machine (quite literally so, given the growing force of drones) is now at the beck and call of a single, unaccountable individual. This is the nightmare the founding fathers tried to protect us from,” Engelhardt wrote.

Engelhardt’s article was actually a critique of an extremely long and detailed story by two New York Times reporters that had appeared in the Times a few days earlier. The article described “the strangest of bureaucratic rituals” in which more than 100 members of the government’s sprawling national security apparatus meet by secure video teleconference to nominate the names of terror suspects, which are then presented to the president and his aides and advisors on what came to be known as “Terror Tuesday.”  Then, “guided by Mr. [John] Brennan, Mr. Obama must approve any name. He signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia and also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan–about a third of the total.”

What was remarkable about the Times article, Engelhardt noted, was that it was not an exposé in any normal sense of the word. It was mere months before the election and three dozen of Obama’s current and former advisors agreed to be interviewed. One columnist even suggested the story was “planted.” In other words, the president and his team were proud of their kill list and wanted the public to know about it.

The Times called Obama’s role in the global killing machine “without precedent in presidential history.” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that Obama oversaw more drone strikes in his first year in office than Bush did in his entire presidency. In all, there were ten times more air strikes in the covert war on terror during Obama’s presidency than under Bush.berko-obama - Z communications

During his first year in office, Obama ordered 54 drone strikes, all of which took place in Pakistan. (Bush could only claim 57 strikes for his entire presidency). Strikes in Pakistan peaked in 2010 with 128 CIA drone attacks and at least 89 civilians killed, according to the Bureau.

Obama also launched an air campaign against Yemen early in his tenure. The first strike, on December 17, 2009, not only killed the intended target but also two neighboring families. A trail of cluster bombs took out many more innocent civilians. In all, 55 people died; 21 were children, ten of them under five, and 12 were women, five of them pregnant. Video footage of children’s bodies and angry tribesmen holding up American missile parts flooded You Tube, noted the Times, fueling a ferocious backlash that Yemeni officials said served to bolster al Qaeda.

But it was only in the last few paragraphs of the Times article that there was a hint of actual criticism of Obama’s reign of terror. “Both Pakistan and Yemen are arguably less stable and more hostile to the United States than when Mr. Obama became president,” the authors noted. “Justly or not, drones have become a provocative symbol of American power, running roughshod over national sovereignty and killing innocents. With China and Russia watching, the United States has set an international precedent for sending drones over borders to kill enemies.”

Dennis Blair, former director of national intelligence, (who was fired in May, 2010), was quoted as saying that the drone campaign was dangerously seductive. “It is the politically advantageous thing to do: low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness. It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”

But fortunately for our leaders, the American public seldom thinks long term and history is something only foreigners study. Of course, Obama didn’t just set a precedent closely observed by other countries.  The man who followed him to the White House was also taking notes.

During Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, more US strikes hit Yemen than in all of 2015 and 2016 combined. In March and April of 2017 alone, US jets and drones carried out 80 air attacks, more than twice the number than in the previous year.

An investigation by the Bureau revealed that at least 25 civilians died in a US ground raid aided by multiple air strikes just a week after Trump’s inauguration. The findings were confirmed by Human Rights Watch and The Intercept. The assault came just days after Trump exempted Yemen from Obama’s policies and rules designed to reduce civilian casualties and limit the circumstances for US strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia.

While Obama reserved for himself final responsibility for determining drone strikes, Trump has instead delegated this authority to his generals. Trump also restarted the drone war in Pakistan during his first 100 days, and returned the power to authorize strikes to the director of the CIA. An NBC story this past September reported that the Trump Administration was considering more policy changes to expand the CIA’s power to conduct drone strikes in countries in and out of war zones.

Brian Terrell of Voices for Creative Nonviolence (VCNV) reported in a 2015 newsletter how President Obama had blamed the death of an American and an Italian hostage killed in a drone attack on the “fog of war.” Terrell explained that the phrase fog of war was introduced by a Prussian military analyst in 1832 to describe the uncertainty experienced by commanders and soldiers on the battlefield.

But the two hostages “were not killed in the fog of war,” Terrell argued. “They were not killed in war at all, not in any way war has been understood until now. They were killed in a country where the United States is not at war. No one was fighting at the compound where they died. The soldiers who fired the missiles that killed these two men were thousands of miles away in the United States and in no danger, even if anyone were firing back,” he wrote. “The decision that led to the deaths … was not reached in the crucible of combat but in the comfort and safety of offices and conference rooms.”

Although government propaganda praises the ability of drone technology to precisely target only the intended victim, the reality is that, like all modern air warfare, it is civilians that bear the brunt of the violence. At the peak of Obama’s drone campaign in Pakistan in 2010, an article in Der Spiegel noted that casualties from drone strikes are rarely counted and most casualties are civilians. The news magazine reported how 15 drone attacks were carried out to kill a Pakistani Taliban leader, and he was finally killed on the 16th attempt, along with ten friends and relatives. “According to sources in Islamabad, CIA drones killed some 700 civilians in 2009,” Der Spiegel said.

An article by Australian journalist Tony Iltis published in Toward Freedom in late 2010 cited a report by Philip Alston, a UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, as saying that armed drones were a way of avoiding accountability for conduct in war. “The result has been the displacement of clear legal standards with a vaguely defined license to kill, and the creation of a major accountability vacuum,” he said.

The article went on to describe how Israel uses remotely operated weapons to enforce a 300 metre buffer zone on the inside perimeter of the Gaza strip, “reserving for itself the right to kill anyone who strays into it. One of the weapons Israel uses is Sentry Tech, a system of machine guns on towers all along the Gaza wall operated by remote control.

On the horizon is the development of “fully autonomous” weapons including a new generation of drones “controlled by an internal computer on the basis of information it acquires from a bewildering array of sensors. The drones will be able to decide to attack a target without human intervention.”

The article asks: “If a computer automatically decides to commit a war crime, then who is responsible?”

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North Korea and the US: Whose finger is really on the button?

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is a journal founded in 1945 by former Manhattan Project physicists after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The journal keeps a clock called the Doomsday Clock, which monitors how close we are–via nuclear weapons and other emerging technologies–to wiping out humanity and the planet. Fairly recently the scientists at the Bulletin pushed the hands of the clock forward 30 seconds. It now reads two minutes to midnight.

There are probably a variety of factors that the scientists considered in concluding that we are dangerously close to the end of life as we know it. There is the ongoing animosity between the US and Russia, tensions over the South China Sea and global warming, to name just a few. But the greatest threat to global security is undoubtedly the volatile and juvenile sparring match between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that has persisted for over half a year.

Trump has taunted Kim, referring to him as “Little Rocket Man,” and has threatened to rain down “fire and fury” and totally obliterate North Korea. More recently, the two leaders have clashed over who has the “biggest button,” with Trump bragging that his is “much bigger & more powerful.” Wouldn’t it be more interesting and a little reassuring if they were bickering over which one had the biggest brain?

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Dueling Missiles

The truth is that we are frightfully close to a monstrous catastrophe. The risk of nuclear war is real. Policy experts have been busy mapping out various scenarios of what could or might happen if the current war of words escalates to actual combat. All the potential outcomes would be disastrous. Even if a preemptive first strike by the US were to knock out North Korea’s nuclear capacity, (an unlikely prospect), millions of South Korean civilians and many of the 154,000 American civilians and 28,000 US service members stationed in South Korea would be killed in a conventional retaliatory attack.

There were lots of scary stories in the press this past December concerning the imminence of all-out war with North Korea. While North Korea was testing nuclear bombs and ICBMs, the US was ramping up its presence near the Peninsula and conducting military exercises with South Korea. When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicated that negotiations were a possibility, Trump quickly undercut his efforts and denigrated the idea of diplomacy, tweeting “save your energy, Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”

Just this spring, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley led a boycott of UN talks on outlawing nuclear weapons. “We would love to have a ban on nuclear weapons,” Haley said, “but in this day and time, we can’t honestly say that we can protect our people by allowing the bad actors to have them, and those of us who are good, trying to keep peace and safety, not to have them.”

Former CIA director Mike Pompeo replaced Tillerson and yet another right-wing hawk now had the president’s ear. As Zack Beauchamp wrote in Vox in mid-December, the reality of war with North Korea was “almost too terrifying to imagine.” He noted that, when the US invaded Iraq in both 1990 and 2002, “the US military engaged in a massive buildup of troops and materiel in the region. North Korea learned a lesson from that: If America suddenly starts ramping up its military presence in your area, war is coming.”

He then quoted Joshua Pollack, an expert on North Korea’s nuclear program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies: “Going back as far as 1994, [the North Koreans] have said that they would not sit there like Iraq did and wait for the United States to build up its forces. They would strike first under those circumstances. And now they’ve said that we’re going to strike you with nuclear weapons, specifically.”

The article went on to note that there were no good lines of communication between Trump and Kim and quoted US Senator Chris Murphy, a member of the Committee on Foreign Relations, as saying that the US was “flying blind” in regards to North Korea’s intentions. Murphy proposed a bill to require Congressional approval for a strike on North Korea but got no support from his colleagues. “These are muscles that we haven’t used in decades, having not authorized military action for 14 years,” Murphy said. “It’s hard, given how much authority we’ve abdicated to the president over the past decade.”

Beauchamp wrote that the word coming from North Korean defectors was that the regime’s forces were on hair-trigger alert, one where authority to launch an attack is delegated down to individual battlefield commanders who may have little or no understanding of what the US is doing. “There are tens of thousands of North Korean artillery and short range missiles, ready to fire at any moment,” one former high-level North Korean diplomat testified to Congress. “North Korean officers are trained to press the button without further instruction from the general command if something happens on their side,” he said.

When North Korea tested its largest nuclear weapon this past September, it was estimated that the device was at least ten times greater than the bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear weapons scholar, developed a modeling tool called NUKEMAP to estimate how many people would die in a nuclear strike. A 100 kiloton bomb like North Korea is believed to have could kill 440,000 people in seconds if detonated above the South Korean port city of Busan.  Over Seoul, it would kill 362,000 and 323,000 over San Francisco. But these are just immediate fatalities; secondary effects from fire and radioactive fallout would likely double the number. All told, one million people would die on the first day of a second Korean war, Scott Sagan wrote this past December in Foreign Policy magazine.

Second Korean War, huh? I would be willing to wager that if a survey were taken on any street in this country, the majority of the respondents would not even be aware that the United States ever fought a first war with Korea. But citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) remember the war well.

Writing in The Intercept last May, British journalist Mehdi Hasan reminded readers that North Koreans both fear and loathe the United States and the hate is not all manufactured by their leaders. It is based in facts that “the United States blithely forgets.”  The war took place between 1950 and 1953, but is not really over, Hasan noted, since it was halted with an armistice agreement, not a peace treaty. “Despite the fact that the conflict saw the United States engage in numerous war crimes, which, perhaps unsurprisingly continue to shape the way North Koreans view the United States, even if [its] residents remain blissfully ignorant of their country’s belligerent past,” Hasan wrote.


Playing with our world

He quoted a University of Chicago historian, Bruce Cumings, who wrote that few Americans know or recall that the United States carpet-bombed the North for three years with little concern for civilian casualties. How many Americans are aware that US planes dropped more bombs on the Korean peninsula (635,000 tons) and more napalm (32,557 tons) than during the entire Pacific campaign against Japan in the Second World War?, Hasan asks. How many Americans know that, “over a period of three years or so,” to quote Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, “we killed off … 20 percent of the population?” Hasan points out that the Nazis exterminated 20 percent of Poland’s pre-World War II population. Quoting LeMay again, “We went over there and fought the war and eventually burned down every town in North Korea.”

He also quotes Secretary of State Dean Rusk as saying that the US bombed “every brick that was standing on top of another, everything that moved.” Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas toured Korea in 1952 and was stunned by the “misery, disease, pain, suffering and starvation” he saw. US planes, having run out of military targets, had bombed farms, factories, dams, schools and hospitals. “I had seen the war-battered cities of Europe,” Justice Douglas lamented, “but I had not seen devastation until I had seen Korea.”

Many Americans believe that Donald Trump is unhinged, and rightly so, but how many know of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s plan to win the Korean War in ten days? MacArthur, who led the United Nations Command during the war, wanted to drop “between 30 and 50 atomic bombs … strung across the neck of Manchuria” that would have “spread behind us … a belt of radioactive cobalt.”

“How many Americans,” Hasan asks, “are taught in school about the Bodo League massacre of tens of thousands of suspected communists on the orders of the US-backed South Korean strongman, Syngman Rhee, in the summer of 1950?” (Estimates are that 100,000 to 200,000 civilians were killed.)

After reading Hasan’s piece, I downloaded an article by Charles Armstrong, who was cited by Hasan. Armstrong is a professor of history and Director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University. His article was published in The Asia-Pacific Journal in 2009.

Armstrong wrote that the US may have considered the Korean conflict a “limited war,” but for the Koreans it was “total war … The US Air Force estimated that North Korea’s destruction was proportionally greater than that of Japan in the Second World War, where the US had turned 64 major cities to rubble and used the atomic bomb to destroy two others.” More than three million civilians are believed to have been killed in the Korean War, the vast majority in the North, which had half the population of the South.

The US dismissed British concerns that mass bombardment would turn world opinion against them, Armstrong noted, and “Russian accusations of indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets did not register with the Americans at all. But for the North Koreans, living in fear of B-29 attacks for nearly three years, including the possibility of atomic bombs, the American air war left a deep and lasting impression.

“The DPRK never forgot the lesson of North Korea’s vulnerability to American air attack,” Armstrong wrote, “and for half a century after the Armistice continued to strengthen anti-aircraft defenses, build underground installations, and eventually develop nuclear weapons to ensure that North Korea would not find itself in such a position again. The long-term psychological effect of the war on the whole of North Korean society cannot be overestimated. The war against the United States, more than any other single factor, gave North Koreans a collective sense of anxiety and fear of outside threats that would continue long after the wars’ end.”

Who knows what Trump’s threats of “fire and fury” might have on Kim Jong-un, but can you imagine what impact they have on the people of Korea?donald-trump-kim-jong-un-moon-jae-cartoon-vector-illustration-september-drawing-100456938

Which brings us back to the question: whose finger is on the button? It would be frightening enough if it was just the finger of the maniac in the White House. But just as with the authorization of drone strikes, the word is that Trump has also delegated the authority to push the nuclear button to various military commanders.

Amy Goodman and Juan González interviewed Daniel Ellsberg about nuclear war planning on Democracy Now this past December. Ten years prior to leaking the “Pentagon Papers” to the press during the Vietnam War, Ellsberg had been a consultant to the Pentagon and White House, drafting plans for nuclear war. González asked him about the capacity of people other than the president to push the nuclear button.

“To start with,” Ellsberg replied, “even if it were only the president, no one man–really, no one nation–should have the ability to threaten or to carry out a hundred Holocausts at his will. That machinery should never have existed. And it does exist right now, and every president has had that power, and this president does have that power.

“But the recent discussions … which emphasize his sole authority to do that, don’t take account of the fact that he has authority to delegate. And he has delegated. Every president has delegated … Every president in the Cold War, right through Carter and Reagan, had delegated, in fact, to theater commanders in case communications were cut off.

“How many fingers are on buttons? Probably no president has ever really known the details of that. I knew, in ’61, for example, that Admiral Harry D. Felt in CINCPAC, commander-in-chief of Pacific, for whom I worked as a researcher, had delegated that to 7th Fleet, down to various commanders, and they, in turn, had delegated down to people.

“There was even a plan to do that automatically by computer,” Ellsberg continued, “as a number of our military always recommended, to make the whole thing computerized, as in the doomsday machine of Herman Kahn and Stanley Kubrick. But, generally they allow for lower-level majors, colonels to decide.”

Amy Goodman then asked about the exchange during a White House meeting when Rex Tillerson allegedly called the president a “f___ing moron,” supposedly in response to Trump asking three times: “If we have nuclear weapons, why don’t we use them?”

Ellsberg responded that, according to others, Trump had asked the same question during the presidential campaign. “And he is using them right now,” Ellsberg said. “He’s using them the way you use a gun when you point it at somebody in a confrontation, whether or not you pull the trigger.

“But, at the moment, they’re being pointed. And they’re being pointed by two people who are giving very good imitations of being crazy. That’s dangerous. I hope they’re pretending. They might be pretending. But to pretend to be crazy with nuclear weapons is not a safe game. It’s a game of chicken. Nuclear chicken.”



War or Peace? Which will it be? We can’t have both.

This past Memorial Day, one year ago, I was visiting an island community off the coast of Wisconsin. There was a Memorial Day commemoration and I found myself in the middle of a modest parade or procession that began at a church and ended several blocks later at a cemetery.

At the cemetery, in a ritual perhaps repeated in hundreds of thousands of communities across the country on this day each year, there was the presenting of the colors and then an elderly gentleman from the American Legion sat in a folding chair and read from a list. It was a list of all the servicemen and women from the island who had died in combat in all the wars this country has fought. The litany of names seemed to go on forever. One name would have been too many.

When the recitation was over, the old man said: “I want you to consider that all your freedoms, ALL your freedoms, are a gift from veterans.”

This is a sentiment I’ve heard many times and sometimes seen displayed on billboards on country roads: Thank a Soldier for Your Freedom. I’m sure people will still be hearing this message 100 years from now, provided the planet is still here.

But it’s not true. It’s a lie. It’s propaganda and those who propagate it are intentionally misleading or are misled. Those who believe it are being duped.

People are born free. They are not made free or given freedom by someone else or by some institution, least of all the institution of war. All war does is kill people, rob us of our common wealth, and spoil our earth. To believe otherwise is nonsense.

Does war have a purpose?

So what is the purpose of war? If you believe the politicians or the mass media, it is to keep us free, or to bring freedom to some unfortunate people somewhere else, or to protect our “national security” or to bring peace. One of the worst wars, early in the last century, was supposed to “put an end to war.” Of course, it didn’t happen. War is a business that has been booming ever since. Think Dresden. Think Hiroshima. Think My Lai. Think Baghdad. Think Kabul.

If we can’t trust the politicians or the mass media to tell us the truth, whom should we turn to? I’ve always liked what Smedley Darlington Butler had to say. (No, I’m not making up that name. No, you probably didn’t read about him in your high school history class.) Butler was a Major General in the Marine Corps, the highest rank possible in his time, and the most decorated marine in US history when he died. He “spent 33 years and four months in active service as a member of our country’s most agile military force.” I suppose he ought to know something about the purpose of war.

major general smedley butler art

Major General Smedley Butler

“During that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism,” Butler admitted. “Like all members of the military profession, I never had an original thought until I left the service.”

“Thus I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-12. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras “right” for American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927, I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested,” Butler wrote.

smedley butler photo and quoteA little later in this five-page confession, Butler declared:  “Since the Revolution, only the United Kingdom has beaten our record for square miles of territory acquired by military conquest. Our exploits against the American Indian, against the Filipinos, the Mexicans, and against Spain are on a par with the campaigns of Genghis Khan, the Japanese in Manchuria and the African attack of Mussolini. No country has ever declared war on us before we first obliged them with that gesture. Our whole history shows we have never fought a defensive war.”

It’s unfortunate that our military leaders today are not as honest. Perhaps, if they were, we would have real reason to thank them, if not for our “freedom,” at least for being truthful.  The truth might set us free.

American Exceptionalism: The Deadly Sin of National Pride

I suppose that every nation has its story, a story that serves to bind its people together. There is probably some truth to all these myths or legends. The United States is no exception. It has its creation story: that we are an exceptional people. Unfortunately, the myth of American exceptionalism is intrinsically linked to the notion of violence. It is at its very core.

In an Amy Goodman conversation with retired army colonel Andrew Bacevich in 2008, he spoke about the American myth of exceptionalism: “It’s clear that from the founding of the Anglo-American colonies, from the time that John Winthrop [Puritan lawyer and governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony] made his famous sermon and declared that “we shall be as a city upon a hill,” a light to the world–it’s clear that, from the outset, there has been a strong sense among Americans that we are a special people with a providential mission,” Bacevich said.

John Winthrop sketch public domain

John Winthrop

“In the twentieth century,” he continued, “probably going back to roughly the time of Woodrow Wilson, certainly since the end of the Cold War, this concept of a providential mission, a responsibility to the world, has translated into a sense of empowerment or prerogative to determine the way the world is supposed to work, what it’s supposed to look like, an also, over the last twenty years or so, an increasing willingness to use military force to cause the world to look the way we want it to look.”

But the force and violence has always been there, since the beginning. The country is rooted in violence. It’s like the humus that nourishes the tree.

In introducing an essay by Ira Chernus on the website TomDispatch.com, journalist and historian Nick Turse wrote that “whether we’re ruminating on all-American mass killings or slaughter by foreign terrorists, it’s worth recalling that America was incubated in a rolling storm of atrocity and birthed in savage cruelty.

“Just two years after the first Thanksgiving,” Turse noted, “Pilgrim commander Myles Standish was knocking the head off a Native American chief to be displayed on a pike in front of the fort at Plymouth, Massachusetts. Not so long after, in present day Jersey City … settler soldiers fell upon a group of mostly women and children of the Wappinger tribe. Thirty were tortured to death for “public amusement.” About 80 others were decapitated and their heads carried across the river to present-day Manhattan where they were gleefully kicked about the streets of the town.

“Fast-forward to 1779 and the father of this country, George Washington, was dispatching troops to devastate Iroquois settlements in New York and Pennsylvania. A couple of infant America’s slain enemies were then skinned and turned into footwear. The better part of a century later, native blood was still being spilled in savage fashion. At Sand Creek, Colorado, U.S. forces massacred hundreds, scalping old women, killing babies, even violating the dead body of a “comely young squaw.” Soldiers collected penises of the men, sliced off the breasts of the women. One soldier even wore a breast as a cap.

“This is not to say that Native Americans didn’t commit horrendous atrocities, only that violence is intricately woven into America’s DNA, a winding helix of cruelty that then threaded its way through the Philippines and the Caribbean, through Hiroshima, No Gun Ri, and My Lai, through Haditha and Kunduz. Where this country went, so went implements of bodily destruction, weaponry designed to kill or maim: rifles and landmines, bombs and missiles. So too went cruelty and massacre, rape and torture, horrendous acts as bad as or worse than any imaginable depredations by an “evil” terror group,” Turse wrote.

Ira Chernus, a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado, began his essay where Turse left off, with the concept of “evil” and how it relates to American exceptionalism. Chernus outlined six “mistakes” that seem to inevitably lead US policy-makers down the well-worn path to war.

The first is “treating the enemy as absolute evil, not even human.” Of course, it’s common knowledge that, in order to soften up the citizenry for yet another war, it’s a prerequisite that national leaders and the media dehumanize the enemy.

“Since we are human and they are not,” wrote Chernus, “we are the opposite in every way. If they are absolute evil, we must be the absolute opposite. It’s the old apocalyptic tale: God’s people versus Satan’s. It ensures that we never have to admit to any meaningful connection with the enemy. By this logic, it couldn’t be more obvious that the nation our leaders endlessly call “exceptional” and “indispensable,” the only nation capable of leading the rest of the world in the war against evil, bears no relationship to that evil.”

Mistake number two on the road to permanent war, Chernus concludes, is that, if it’s a “war against evil, God’s people must be innocent.”  As a result, we don’t have to look honestly at our own history and the ways this nation contributes to or even instigates the spiral of violence.

And mistake number three, “blotting out history,” inevitably follows from the previous premise. We don’t need to examine the role of the US (and CIA in particular) in creation, arming and funding of the mujahidin in Afghanistan, who opposed the Soviets in the 1980s, which led to al-Qaeda. Or George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, which “cracked the region open and paved the way for the Islamic State.”

Mistake number four, Chernus opined, is to “assume that the enemy, like Lucifer himself, does evil just for the sake of doing it.” Even to think about the enemy’s motives, he says, “would smack of sympathy for the devil.”

After referring to several scholars and journalists who had dared to attempt to shed light on the motivation of ISIS, Chernus added: “It’s not just that IS fighters are distinctly human, but that in some ways they are eerily like us. After all, we, too, have a military that uses an ideological narrative to recruit young people and prepare them to be willing to die for it. Our military, too, is savvy in using social media and various forms of advertising and publicity to deploy its narrative effectively. Like IS recruits, youngsters join our military for all sorts of reasons, but some because they are rootless, disaffected, and in search of a belief system, or at least an exciting adventure (even one that may put them in danger of losing their lives). And don’t forget that these young recruits, like the IS fighters, often have only the sketchiest grasp of what exactly they are signing up to die for or of the nature of the conflicts they may be involved in.”

Mistake number five reasons that, if the enemy is evil incarnate, then they are also “as relentless, intractable and implacable as the devil himself. As a result, we also imagine that nothing we could do might diminish their will to evil … And since they are just crazy–not capable of normal rationality–there is no point in trying to talk with them.”

This leads to the sixth and final mistake: “The belief that we have only one option: annihilation.” Chernus pointed out that in the last presidential campaign, the three major candidates, Trump, Clinton and even Bernie Sanders all called for the total annihilation of the Islamic State.

“The dream of a war of annihilation against evil has a long, long history in white America,” Chernus added. “It began in 1636 when Puritans in New England wiped out the Pequot tribe, promising that such a lesson would prevent further attacks by other tribes. In fact, it created a spiral of violence and counter-violence, and a war-against-evil template that the country still follows nearly four centuries later in its “war on terror”. “

Why this seemingly irresistible urge to fight yet another war against evil? Chernus asks. Perhaps it has to do with another American myth, he suggests. He calls it the myth of national insecurity. “It tells us that we will always be at war with evildoers bent on destroying us; that war … is the mission and meaning of our nation; and that the only way to feel like a real American is to enlist permanently in permanent war.

“Even as we stoke the Islamic State,” he speculates, “we stoke ourselves as well. The longer we fight, the more deeply we are seized by fear. The more we fear, the more fiercely we are determined to fight. Perhaps the point is not to win the war but to remain trapped in this vicious circle, which feels perversely comforting because it offers a sense of unified national identity as nothing else can in our otherwise deeply divided nation.”

Vincent Kavaloski, a philosophy professor at Edgewood College in Madison, WI, explored this theme of a national myth in 1990, writing in a newsletter of the Ecumenical Partnership for Peace and Justice of the Wisconsin Council of Churches. The myth of nationalism combines a sense of superiority with a claim to divine destiny in order to justify war, Kavaloski wrote. “Most national myths celebrate military conquest as an essential part of their story.”

City on a Hill quoteThe founding American myth was “strikingly different” on the face of it, he wrote. It was the story of a freedom-loving people escaping the oppression and corruption of an “Old World” to found a “New World” built upon liberty and equality. “We see here a creative combination of two Biblical themes: America as an innocent Eden; and the Exodus journey out of slavery.”

The third Biblical theme, according to Kavaloski, was “America as Messiah … the U.S. would be a “redeemer nation” for all humanity, the bearer of “manifest destiny”.  The synthesis of these three Biblical themes created a potent but dangerous self-identity in the American psyche.” On one hand, we viewed ourselves as peaceful and innocent (Eden), as well as freedom-seeking (Exodus); but on the other hand, we believed we had the right, even the duty, to “save the world” (Messiah) through our military and economic power.

Kavaloski then quoted historian Ronald Wells, who said “the spiritual pride of the United States consisted in acting innocently upon the pretense of its special calling, despite the fact that it was almost constantly at war, either with the Indians at home, or with other nations.”

“Despite the historical record,” Kavaloski added, “most Americans continue to believe in the innocence and special destiny of the U.S. At one level, this demonstrates the power of myth over reason. From a theological point of view, the U.S. myth, like most myths of nationalism, is blasphemous. It portrays one nation as more “godly” than others, and hence above the moral law. It leads to what Senator Fulbright called the “arrogance of power”–an idolatrous worship of state power in pursuit of “vital national interests” (the new name for “manifest destiny”)”.

Kavaloski ended his essay with these words: “In the final analysis, the myth of the nation-state is a lie because it denies the fundamental truth of the oneness of humanity: that we share not only a common human nature and a common creation, but also a common propensity toward sin, pride and error.”

Next Time:  The draft and the Drone: Distancing ourselves from war and North Korea and the US: Whose finger is on the button?



The Time Has Come for Health Care for All!

 Let’s Make It Happen.

Well, you may be thinking that we’re on our way to hell in a handbasket but there’s a glimmer of a chance we can actually create significant change during the deranged reign of Donald Trump. Yes, the time may have finally come for health care for all in these United States.

Barack Obama stuck a band-aid on a system that needed a major heart transplant. Right-wing Republicans spent six years or more trying to rip the band-aid off and, when they finally got the opportunity, they had nothing to offer to replace it.

Oh yes, our Wisconsin resident-wonk, Paul Ryan, had a proposal. It proved to be even more unpopular than Obamacare. Ryan had a plan back in 2009 too, when Obamacare was first being crafted. He called it The Patient’s Choice Act, in which he generously offered Americans the choice between a casket and an urn. He followed this up two years later with an equally unpopular campaign to gut Medicare and Medicaid.

But all along there’s been a better option. In wonk-speak it’s called “single-payer.” Some people call it Medicare for All. Whatever you choose to call it, it’s a common sense approach that guarantees quality, fair and cost effective healthcare for everyone.

Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) has been introducing this legislation in every session of Congress since 2003. U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), you may have heard of him, has been presenting similar legislation in the Senate since 2010, influenced by single-payer legislation introduced by the late Paul Wellstone (D-MN) in the early 1990s. Congressman Jim McDermott (D-WA), now retired, had worked with Wellstone, Conyers, Sanders and others in introducing universal healthcare legislation since 1994.

So is this just a case of a few politicians on the loony left jousting with windmills? Not quite. Conyer’s bill, the Expanded & Improved Medicare for All Act (H.R. 676), was introduced early this year and already has 93 co-sponsors. Even Obama, before he became beholden to the powers-that-be, was in favor of universal healthcare. Speaking to an audience of union leaders in 2003, while running for the U.S. Senate, he had this to say:

I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer, universal health-care plan. I see no reason why the United States of America, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, spending 14 percent of its Gross National Product on health care, cannot provide basic health insurance to everybody.

As Ralph Nader wrote this past month, politicians on the left and right, from Harry Truman in the 1940s to Hillary Clinton and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in our time, have expressed their support for universal healthcare. According to Nader, Pelosi defended herself to young protesters at a recent town hall meeting by saying: “I’ve been for single-payer since before you were born.”

And what about that Tweety Bird in the White House? Back in 2000, he wrote: “The Canadian plan also helps Canadians live longer and healthier than Americans … We need, as a nation, to re-examine the single-payer plan, as many individual states are doing.”

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The Indictment

Let’s back up a little bit and revisit that time around 2006-2009, just before Obama’s Affordable Care Act was cooked up. The Obama reform bill was a political process that fit the adage about law-making: a messy, repugnant business akin to making sausage, not fit for the squeamish to watch.

So what was happening then, and what were the media, politicians and the grassroots doing and thinking?  First of all, there was a deluge of articles in newspapers, magazines and online about the healthcare crisis. Yes! Magazine dedicated an entire issue to it in the fall of 2006. Everyone seemed to concur that the system was broken and almost everyone had a somewhat different theory on what it would take to fix it.

Lately, Republicans have been bellowing about sharply rising healthcare costs, citing this fact to support their assertion that Obamacare has failed. But news reports a decade ago revealed that this trend did not begin with the Affordable Care Act. Statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services indicated that U.S. health care costs climbed from 7.2 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 1970 to 17.6 percent by 2009. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that the U.S. spent more on healthcare as a percentage of GDP and more per person ($8,608) than any other country. At 17 percent of GDP, the U.S. spent twice as much in 2013 as France, the second highest country.

Back in 2008, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) predicted that total healthcare spending would double to more than $4 trillion by 2017, accounting for one of every five dollars the country spends. (At the time, healthcare spending was increasing at nearly three times the rate of inflation.) When I consulted the latest CMS fact sheet, it showed that national health spending reached $3.2 trillion in 2015.

Americans like to say that “you get what you pay for” but study after study in those pre-Obamacare years revealed that the U.S. health care system was not just the most expensive in the world but also one of the worst performing. The system was not just costly but also inefficient, wasteful, inequitable and faulted for poor outcomes. If report cards were issued to the industrialized nations of the world based on health indicators, the USA would have flunked out of school years ago.

Yes! Magazine’s 2006 issue on American health care noted that the World Health Organization (WHO) ranked the U.S. health system 37th, well below most of Europe and even trailing some Latin American countries. On “level of health,” how efficiently a system translates spending into overall health, (i.e. “bang for the buck”), WHO ranked the USA 72nd.

The U.S. has a higher infant mortality rate than most of the world’s industrialized nations. The number of women here who die during or due to childbirth is now double the maternal mortality rate of Saudi Arabia or Canada, and triple that of the United Kingdom. Our life expectancy ranks 50th in the world, below most developed nations and some of the developing ones.

Back when Democrats were beginning to craft their healthcare reform bill, about 47 million Americans lacked health insurance and nearly 45,000 were dying annually due to lack of health insurance. It was estimated that 50 to 60 percent of all filings for bankruptcy were due, at least in part, to medical expenses. And 68 percent or more of those who went bankrupt had some form of health insurance.

A Harris poll in 2005 indicated that three-fourths of U.S. citizens wanted what all other industrialized countries already had, universal healthcare. So what happened? What went wrong?

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Obamacare: A Necessary Compromise or Kiss of Death?

It was not as if no one was watching and no one cared. Healthcare reform was the biggest story in the news—locally and nationally. It was estimated that at least 800 organizations were actively working on the issue. In Wisconsin alone there were probably close to 100.

I was involved, as a community organizer, with a local group that was part of the national, faith-based network that Obama had also worked for as a community organizer. Wisconsin physicians Linda and Gene Farley, who dedicated decades of their lives advocating for single-payer healthcare, spoke at our meetings. Both are now deceased. Three different bills, all of them calling for comprehensive healthcare reform, vied for support in the Wisconsin State Legislature.  One of them, the Wisconsin Health Security Act, would have created a single-payer, “Medicare for All” system in the state. None of the bills got much traction in the legislature, despite referenda in various counties and cities in 2006 indicating 82 percent support for affordable, universal healthcare and a 2008 poll that showed 61 percent of Wisconsin residents favored a  state-run health system.  Nonetheless, a number of significant reforms to the local health system were enacted.

But getting involved and getting to the table where the decisions are made proved to be two very different things. I could be wrong but I doubt that anyone from the multitude of local and national citizen coalitions (or labor unions or other progressive groups, for that matter), was ever invited to the table.

How about Dr. Quentin Young, a physician and native of Obama’s Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago? Young, who died just a year ago, was an ardent advocate of single-payer healthcare, a national coordinator of Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP), and the leader of many other local and national health organizations. When Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Chicago, Young was his personal physician.

Other notables he treated in more than 50 years of private practice included former Chicago mayor Harold Washington, former Illinois governor Pat Quinn, writer Studs Terkel and newspaper columnist Mike Royko. Oh, and Barack Obama too. Young once commented that the legendary Royko “was always very sarcastic and never liked my leftist ideas. Studs would at least listen to me.” Did Obama listen to him, or invite him to the table where the decisions were being made and the deals cut? Apparently not.

So who did Obama and the Democratic power-brokers listen to back in 2009 and early 2010? A case could be made that they were listening to money.

Those who had the money just happened to be the same ones who make their money off healthcare: the drug industry and the insurance industry. As Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research wrote early in 2009: “Our system of private insurance and powerful monopolies is vastly more wasteful and inefficient than the healthcare systems of other developed countries. Insurance companies spend tens of billions trying to insure the healthy, avoid the sick, and deny payment for claims. Pharmaceutical companies take $350 billion of our healthcare dollars for drugs that cost a small fraction of that sum to produce.”

During the first half of 2009, Big PhRMA (the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America) spent $13.1 million in lobbying and the drug company Pfizer reported $11.7 million in lobbying expenses.  “The pharmaceutical industry, which President Barack Obama promised to ‘take on’ during his campaign, is winning most of what it wants in the health-care overhaul,” wrote two reporters in the Wall Street Journal. This booty for the industry included no cost-cutting measures, no cheaper drugs allowed across the Canadian border, and no direct government negotiations with the pharmaceutical companies to lower Medicare drug prices.

At the same time, Bernie Sanders was pointing out that the combined profits of the nation’s major health insurance companies had increased by 170 percent from 2003 to 2007. The former head of UnitedHealth Group had accumulated stock options worth an estimated $1.6 billion and the Cigna CEO had reaped over $120 million in the past five years, Sanders wrote.

The Washington Post was scheduled to host a $25,000 per person “salon” to bring lobbyists and health care CEOs together with the policy-makers drafting the healthcare bill, until heat from the public forced the newspaper to cancel the event.

At the center of the national health care debate, as it dragged on in late 2009, was Max Baucus, chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.  Who was Baucus listening to? Probably not any of the millions of Americans lacking adequate healthcare or coverage, or those going bankrupt due to healthcare expenses.

Baucus not only had his own taxpayer-subsidized health coverage but also scored $3.9 million in contributions from the healthcare industry over a six-year period, the most among all members of Congress according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Citing data compiled by the Center, the Washington Post reported that the healthcare lobby donated nearly $170 million to federal lawmakers in 2007 and 2008. During the first quarter of 2009, the Dems, who controlled Congress, collected 60 percent of $5.4 million in contributions from the healthcare industry.

When doctors and nurses advocating single-payer healthcare were banned from Senate hearings on healthcare, they stood in silent protest and Baucus had them arrested.

Many liberal Democrats and some of the grassroots organizations had drawn a line in the sand. The line was what was euphemistically called the “public option.” But the political winds were blowing and sand would soon bury the line.

The public option was a proposal to create a government-run insurance agency to compete with private health insurance companies. It would provide an “option” for uninsured citizens who couldn’t afford the rates or were rejected by private health insurers. Obama promoted the public option concept while running for election in 2008 but downplayed it when he got in office.

The public option was included in three bills considered by the House of Representatives in 2009, one of which was passed by the House. But Baucus and other powerful congressional leaders were against it.

In August, 2009, a group of five dozen House progressives wrote to Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) ruling out support for any bill without a public option. In early September, two leaders of the progressive caucus wrote directly to Obama, drawing their line in the sand. “Any bill that does not provide, at a minimum, a public option built on the Medicare provider system and with reimbursement based on Medicare rates–not negotiated rates–is unacceptable,” they wrote. “A health reform bill without a robust public option will not achieve the health reform this country so desperately needs,” they continued. “We won’t vote for anything less.”

In their brief letter, they used the word robust five times. The dictionary says it means to exhibit sound health or great strength and vigor, but the progressive wing of the Democratic Party proved to be somewhat lacking in these attributes. Late the following month, Joe Lieberman, the man without a party, threatened a filibuster and that was enough to bust the robust demand of the Dems, who began to cave.

Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) voted against an early version of the Affordable Care Act in the House. In a public statement explaining his position, he charged: “Clearly the insurance companies are the problem, not the solution. They are driving up the cost of health care … But instead of working toward the elimination of for-profit insurance, H.R. 3962 would put the government in the role of accelerating the privatization of health care. In H.R. 3962, the government is requiring at least 21 million Americans to buy private health insurance from the very industry that causes costs to be so high, which will result in at least $70 billion in new annual revenue, much of which is coming from taxpayers.”

In mid-March of 2010, Kucinich was a guest on Amy Goodman’s show, Democracy Now!, along with another former presidential candidate, Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate. The House was about to vote on the Senate healthcare bill, Obama had just met with Kucinich on Air Force One on their way to a political rally, and all of the other 77 Democrats who had vowed not to vote for a bill without a public option had already relented. Now it was Kucinich’s turn to toss in the towel.

“It would be impossible to start a serious discussion in Washington if this bill goes down, despite the fact that I don’t like it at all. And every criticism I made still stands,” Kucinich said. “I want to see this as a step. It’s not the step I wanted to take, so that, after it passes, we can continue the discussion about comprehensive health care reform.”

“I think the President could really be instrumental in bringing about just about any kind of change that he wants,” Kucinich added. “For whatever reason, he decided to carefully construct a plan that would admit no chance for any real challenge to the market structure of private, for-profit insurance companies. He’s worked very tightly within that system. That’s a choice that he made. And during the campaign, you know, he made it very clear that he was looking at reforms within the context of the for-profit system.”

Nader, who was not subject to arm-twisting by the President, had this to say: “This bill does not provide universal, comprehensive or affordable care to the American people. It shovels hundreds and billions of dollars of taxpayer money into the worst corporations who’ve created this problem: the Aetnas, the Cignas, the health insurance companies. And it doesn’t require many contractual accountabilities and other accountabilities for people who are denied healthcare in this continuing pay-or-die system that is the disgrace of the Western world.

“For the drug companies, it’s a bonanza. It doesn’t require Uncle Sam to negotiate volume discounts. It allows these new biologic drugs, under patent, to fight off generic competition–that’s a terrible provision. And it doesn’t allow reimportation from counties like Canada to keep prices down.”

But Nader was rather mild in his remarks compared to commentator Keith Olbermann, who used his MSNBC soapbox, just before Christmas 2009, to rant about the legislative conflict and to berate those lawmakers who had fashioned the healthcare bill. Howard Dean had been on his show the night before and had announced he could not support the proposed legislation.

Olbermann began by quoting Winston Churchill: “We have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat, without a war.” He castigated Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) for “seeking the least common denominator. This is not health, this is not care, this is certainly not reform.”

Olbermann urged the Dems not to make the defeat worse “by passing a hollow shell of a bill” that had been “slowly bled to death by the political equivalent of the leeches that were once thought state-of-the-art medicine, is now little more than a series of microscopically minor tweaks of a system which is the real-life, here-and-now version of the malarkey of the Town Hallers.

“The American Insurance Cartel is the Death Panel, and this Senate bill does nothing to destroy it. Nor even to satiate it. It merely decrees that our underprivileged, our sick, our elderly, our middle class, can be fed into it, as human sacrifices to the great maw of corporate voraciousness.”

“Mr. (Chuck) Grassley of Iowa has lied, and fomented panic and fear,” he said, and “Mr. Baucus of Montana has operated as a virtual agent for the industry he is charged with regulating.”  Olbermann reserved his most scathing criticism for Lieberman, “the one man at the center of this farcical perversion of what a government is supposed to be … he has sold untold hundreds of thousands of us into pain and fear and privation and slavery–for money. He has been bought and sold by the insurance lobby. He has become a Senatorial prostitute.  And sadly, the President has not provided the leadership his office demands.”

Olbermann argued that the provision in the bill requiring people to buy insurance had to be stripped out. “The bill now is little more than a legally mandated delivery of the middle class (and those whose dreams of joining it slip even further away) into a kind of Chicago stockyards of insurance,” he said.

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The game plan: How do we get from here to there?

So here we are, seven years later. Obama got his healthcare program and “cemented his legacy.” He spent the rest of his administration making war and defending his bad health program against rabid Republicans. Instead of the national security of a healthcare system that works, he gave us the national security state. But who was paying attention?

What are our chances now, if Obama couldn’t or wouldn’t do it then? Accuse me of being delusional, if you will, but I think our chances might be a little better now. Here are a few reasons:

OneThe cost of healthcare continues to escalate out of control. In another seven years, nearly half of all healthcare spending is expected to be shouldered by the government, at all levels. So, if government is going to be involved anyway, why not have government take a robust position and save everyone lots of money, by eliminating the middle men (private insurers) and reining in the drug companies?

If the present system is allowed to continue, the government is likely to go bankrupt, along with many of its citizens. We can appeal to free-market Republicans on the basis of cost and appeal to everyone else on the basis of justice.

TwoThe present system is wasteful and doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, making it doubly wasteful. And who likes waste?

Every other industrialized country in the world provides healthcare for its entire population at half the cost and has much better outcomes. In Canada, only 1.5 percent of healthcare costs are devoted to administration of the single-payer system. In the United States, 31 percent of healthcare expenditures go to the insurance industry.

According to Steffie Woolhandler, a physician and co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program, our hospitals are spending 25 percent of their total budgets on billing and administration, while those in Canada and Scotland are spending only 12 percent. In our bloated system, the number of administrative personnel has grown by 25 times the number of physicians, according to Bernie Sanders.

Trump expressed his admiration for the single-payer system in his book, The America We Deserve, and raved about the Scottish healthcare system on the David Letterman show just two years ago. We, as a nation, need to remind Trump that we do deserve a better system and we want it now!

ThreePeople’s attitudes are changing. More and more people view healthcare as a human right, not a privilege. Bernie Sanders, supposedly the most popular politician in the country, probably deserves a lot of credit for this. Sanders made a publicly-funded, single-payer, universal healthcare program the central tenet of his presidential campaign. Public opinion polls continue to show that the majority of people prefer a government-guaranteed healthcare program. In a LinkedIn survey just last month, nearly half of physicians said they would support a single-payer healthcare system.

Yes, there were people that thought some of Sanders’ proposals extreme, but today proposals of his such as free college tuition are being considered and even tested at the state level.

FourWe’ve tried the other options. They haven’t worked. Now it’s time to try something that will.

There were good progressive people, back in 2008 and 2009, who argued that we needed to “begin where people are at” or that we needed to “get to single-payer by another route.” Well, we’ve been there, done that. We underestimated the people. They were ready all along.

Even the corporate Wall Street Journal, just prior to the implosion of the Ryan healthcare plan, had this to say:

The Healthcare Market is at a crossroads. Either it heads in a more market-based direction step by step or it moves toward single-payer step by step. If Republicans blow this chance and default to Democrats, they might as well endorse single-payer because that is where the politics will end up.

Seven years ago, Dennis Kucinich said he hoped to use the Obama bill as a “step” toward real healthcare reform. Then the Republicans redistricted him out of office. Let’s get him back in the game and take the next step toward health care for all.

Bernie Sanders, who has not stopped campaigning and organizing, recently announced that he plans to soon introduce new healthcare legislation in Congress. Let’s get behind his bill and the Conyer’s bill. Let’s get our unions and faith communities and grassroots organizations and local Democratic groups and all the young people that Bernie brought into the political process to come together and organize another big push. Let’s demand that Trump help “make America great again” by providing a healthcare system that puts people before profits.

The time is now.

Martin Luther King and the Military State:

Can we reclaim the real legacy?

I’ve been travelling a lot lately so I missed a number of portentous events this past month. First there were the inauguration festivities. (Hats off to all of you who made it there to usher in the new regime.) Then there was the Women’s March on Washington. (What could be worse than listening to Trump, except perhaps Madonna?) And then, what was the third thing? Oh yes, the Martin Luther King Day celebrations.

All those songs and speeches, public dignitaries paying homage, and someone, a child perhaps, reciting I Had a Dream. It’s enough to warm the soul for a few minutes on a frigid January day. But I must confess I usually abstain from these ceremonies.  It’s that I’d like to talk about.

Martin Luther King is a lot like Jesus Christ. He’s been so thoroughly sanitized, sanctified and generally scrubbed up that, if he were to come back when mid-January rolls around and listen to what people say about him, he might not recognize himself.

But he’s made it big. He’s got his own day on the calendar, kids get to skip school, mail carriers get a day off, and every major city (and many minor ones) has a street named after him. But something tells me all this hullabaloo is a disservice to the man. Just like with that guy Jesus. (What did he ever do to deserve Christmas?)

And there’s no better way to make you irrelevant than to make you a saint. The person who really showed Martin respect was J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover had the sense to recognize King for what he was, a real legitimate threat, and so Hoover did everything in his power to ruin King’s reputation and attempt to neutralize or destroy him.

Neither King nor Jesus was all that popular in his day, particularly with the powers-that-be, but both were eloquent and knew how to move a crowd. Both were also radicals, agitators, troublemakers: a threat to the power structure.

There are also some similarities between King and our former president. Both happened to be black. Obama could talk pretty. King could talk truth. Both were recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. King earned his for fighting for peace and justice. Obama got his for promising peace and justice and then making war.

Well, I guess they didn’t have much in common after all. But, like many public leaders, Obama professes to be inspired by King. Just not sufficiently inspired to emulate him.

On April 4th of 1967, exactly one year to the day before his assassination, King delivered a bold and compelling speech at the Riverside Church in New York City in which he strongly denounced the Vietnam War and called for a “revolution of values” in the United States. Although the majority of the ten-page lecture focused specifically on the history and evil of the savage war the US was waging in Southeast Asia, King also used it to continue and expand his critique of violence, racism, militarism, imperialism and capitalism.

He summarized a “pattern of suppression” and counter-revolutionary activity that the nation had been engaged in for the preceding decade, including military advisors in Venezuela, American forces in Guatemala and Cambodia, and the use of napalm and Green Berets against rebels in Peru. He quoted the late John F. Kennedy, who five years earlier had said: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

“Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken,” King said, “the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.  When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

“A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth,” King continued. “With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say ‘This is not just.’

The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.”

                                                                                             Martin Luther King

Of course, neither King’s many detractors nor his many supporters wanted him to speak out about the war, or capitalism, or even about class and income disparity. But King saw that ultimately all these issues were connected and that violence and militarism were the mechanisms that kept an unjust system in place, both at home and overseas.

“I knew I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government,” King declared in his 1967 speech.

It is now nearly 50 full years since King delivered his speech at the Riverside Church. Not much has changed. Donald Trump’s campaign slogan aside, the United States is still “great”, the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, by far. The radical revolution of values that King called for appears to still be a distant dream.

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Perhaps the revolution that Bernie Sanders advocated in his campaign was a hearkening back to King’s message, but Sanders scrupulously avoided any critique of US foreign policy, save for one brave but cautious comment on the Palestinian issue during the last primary debate.  Universal health care, a living wage, free college tuition and, of course, global warming and energy policy are all important and pressing issues, but none of these domestic concerns are likely to be resolved satisfactorily while the nation’s wealth is squandered on war and preparation for war.

And, as King pointed out so eloquently, it is not just the material and economic waste of perpetual war that is at issue, but also the spiritual cost.“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” King said in his speech.

“A rotted national soul enables leaders to wage endless war, but endless war also rots the national soul.”

Glenn Greenwald

I would argue that when an architect of genocide like Madeline Albright is considered a “feminist,” fit to admonish young women for supporting a Democratic Socialist running for president, then we are probably already spiritually dead as a nation. If not dead, then at least comatose. When a woman who consorts with war criminals and architects of genocide such as Henry Kissinger is considered an acceptable presidential candidate by the majority of the population, we are probably already spiritually dead.

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Journalist Glenn Greenwald, (who broke the story of Edward Snowden’s revelations on national security surveillance), wrote a column four years ago on the day Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term as president. It also happened to be the Martin Luther King holiday. Greenwald pointed out that Obama, our first African-American president, would always be linked in history to King because King’s activism made a black president possible.

But Greenwald noted that this symbolic link had a negative side: “Obama’s policies are a manifestation of exactly the militaristic mindset which King so eloquently denounced.” He added that Obama had often lifted King’s phrase “fierce urgency of now” from his anti-war speech, a speech “that stands as a stinging repudiation of the continuous killing and violence Obama has spent the last four years unleashing on many countries around the world.” (Greenwald noted that journalist Max Blumenthal had suggested that Obama’s inaugural speech be titled “I Have a Drone.”)

Greenwald went on to say that he felt the most powerful aspect of King’s speech was how he repeatedly linked American violence in the world to the poisoning of the nation’s soul. “The debasement of the national psyche, the callousness toward continual killing,” wrote Greenwald, “the belief that the US has not only the right but the duty to bring violence anywhere in the world that it wants: that is what lies at the heart of America’s ongoing embrace of endless war. A rotted national soul does indeed enable leaders to wage endless war, but endless war also rots the national soul, exactly as King warned. At times this seems to be an inescapable, self-perpetuating cycle of degradation.”

The same day that Greenwald’s column was published there was another article, an interview by Paul Jay of The Real News Network with Anthony Monteiro, an African-American Studies professor at Temple University in Philadelphia.  Monteiro traced King’s life and evolution as a radical, from his early days in a seminary near Philadelphia to his death in Memphis, Tennessee, helping to organize sanitation workers.

Jay and Monteiro wrap up the interview by talking about how King’s legacy is co-opted and defused by members of the power structure. (I don’t know about you, but it always irked me to turn on the boob tube on the evening of MLK Day and see footage of the Obamas volunteering in a food pantry or some other foolishness. First of all, they actually had the power to change something, if they chose to. Second, both of them were intelligent enough to know that, instead of serving Spam to some homeless people, King would have been asking why the wealthiest nation in the history of the world had so many homeless and so many food pantries. Martin Luther King was not about charity, he was about radical change, and this self-serving grandstanding by the “first family” was an insult to his name.)

“King’s legacy is a gift not only to black Americans or to America but to humanity.”

Professor Anthony Monteiro

Here’s what Professor Monteiro had to say about it: “That (MLK’s) legacy is too powerful for the elites. They have to minimize it. They have to distort it. They have to cheapen it. Besides, you know, First Lady Obama calling for people to do service. I am particularly offended by the fact that the president will be sworn in using Martin Luther King’s bible. To me it’s a cheap PR trick. The president has nothing in common with King the man, and his presidency is the opposite of the great legacy of Martin Luther King.”

“You know,” he continued, “King’s legacy is a gift not only to black Americans or to America but to humanity. And here we have a president who in many ways is George Bush on steroids—wars in every part of the world, preparation for war, economic wars against nations like Iran, actual wars in Africa, and so on and so forth. This is the very opposite of what Martin Luther King represents.”

If this indictment of Obama seems too harsh, we should consider that these comments were made only halfway through his presidency. The worst was yet to come. While American liberals slept, content that there was a black man in the White House, much more mayhem would be unleashed at home and overseas. The war against immigrants, the war against Muslims, the war against blacks on the streets of our cities and, most critically, a war against democracy itself with the establishment of a police state, a military state and a surveillance state. It would all lay a solid neo-fascist foundation for Trump to build on.

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Every morning when I boot up my computer, it opens up to the Yahoo! “news,” such as it is. Amidst all the gruesome stories about some man or woman or child savagely slaying the rest of their family, or a mother or father keeping a child locked in a closet for a dozen years, there is always a tidbit (perhaps intended as relief) about an actress or model or Kardashian sporting the newest, ground-breaking bikini. So what does a flimsy swimsuit have to do with the dark side of the American psyche?

For the answer you need only turn to the award-winning Australian journalist and filmmaker, John Pilger. It’s in an article titled A world war has begun that was published on April Fool’s Day this past year. But the story is no joke. According to Pilger, the bikini was named to celebrate the nuclear explosions that destroyed Bikini Island. The United States unleashed 42.2 megatons of nuclear devices in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958, the equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs every day for a dozen years. Pilger probably knows a few things on this subject, having made two documentary movies about the heinous crimes of Britain and the US in the Indian Ocean. (The population of an entire archipelago was expelled by the Brits in the 60s and 70s, and later the US would use one of the islands as a military base to bomb Iraq and Afghanistan.)

Now that I have your attention with the sordid history of the bikini, I’d like to quote at length from Pilger’s article, in which he argues that a world war of catastrophic proportions is right around the corner, if it hasn’t already begun:

In 2009, President Obama stood before an adoring crowd in the center of Prague, in the heart of Europe. He pledged himself to make “the world free from nuclear weapons.” People cheered and some cried. A torrent of platitudes flowed from the media. Obama was subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

It was all fake. He was lying.

The Obama administration has built more nuclear weapons, more nuclear warheads, more nuclear delivery systems, more nuclear factories. Nuclear warhead spending alone rose higher under Obama than under any American president. The cost over thirty years is more than $1 trillion.

In the last eighteen months, the greatest build-up of military forces since World War Two—led by the United States—is taking place along Russia’s western frontier. Not since Hitler invaded the Soviet Union have foreign troops presented such a demonstrable threat to Russia.

Ukraine—once part of the Soviet Union—has become a CIA theme park. Having orchestrated a coup in Kiev, Washington effectively controls a regime that is next door and hostile to Russia: a regime rotten with Nazis, literally. Prominent parliamentary figures in Ukraine are the political descendants of the notorious OUN and UPA fascists. They openly praise Hitler and call for the persecution and expulsion of the Russian speaking minority.

This is seldom news in the West, or it is inverted to suppress the truth.

In Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia—next door to Russia—the US military is deploying combat troops, tanks, heavy weapons. [And just last month the US participated in military exercises in Poland as part of NATO, the largest armed military brigade in Europe since the Cold War.]

This extreme provocation of the world’s second nuclear power is met with silence in the West.

Pilger goes on to document similar provocations toward China, alleging that the US is surrounding that country with a network of bases, ballistic missiles, battle groups and nuclear-armed bombers.  A little later, Pilger writes:

In the circus known as the American presidential campaign, Donald Trump is being presented as a lunatic, a fascist. He is certainly odious; but he is also a media hate figure. That alone should arouse our skepticism.

Trump’s views on migration are grotesque, but no more grotesque than those of David Cameron. It is not Trump who is the Great Deporter from the United States, but the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Barack Obama.

According to one prodigious liberal commentator, Trump is “unleashing the dark forces of violence” in the United States. Unleashing them?

This is the country where toddlers shoot their mothers and the police wage a murderous war against black Americans. This is the country that has attacked and sought to overthrow more than 50 governments, many of them democracies, and bombed from Asia to the Middle East, causing the deaths and dispossession of millions of people.

No country can equal this systemic record of violence. Most of America’s wars (almost all of them against defenseless countries) have been launched not by Republicans but by liberal Democrats: Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, Obama.

In 1947, a series of National Security Council directives described the paramount aim of American foreign policy as “a world substantially made over in [America’s] own image.” The ideology was messianic Americanism.

Donald Trump is a symptom of this, but he is also a maverick. He says the invasion of Iraq was a crime; he doesn’t want to go to war with Russia and China. The danger to the rest of us is not Trump, but Hillary Clinton. She is no maverick. She embodies the resilience and violence of a system whose vaunted “exceptionalism” is totalitarian with an occasional liberal face.

As presidential election day draws near, Clinton will be hailed as the first female president, regardless of her crimes and lies—just as Barack Obama was lauded as the first black president and liberals swallowed his nonsense about “hope.” And the drool goes on.

Described by the Guardian columnist Owen Jones as “funny, charming, with a coolness that eludes practically every other politician,” Obama the other day sent drones to slaughter 150 people in Somalia. He kills people usually on Tuesdays, according to the New York Times, when he is handed a list of candidates for death by drone. So cool.

I’ll stop there. Read the article. Maybe it takes a journalist from outside the US to see us as we really are. But I want to focus for a moment on this concept of “cool.”

Besides the Yahoo! news, my computer presents me each day with a list of literary journals seeking poems and short stories and other kinds of serious literature. Recently an announcement was posted by a journal called Booth, published by Butler University. The notice indicated they were planning a special issue called Birth of the White House Cool: Reflections on the Obama Years.

My first thought was that It’s Cool to Kill might make a better subtitle for their upcoming collection, “a robust gathering of works that illuminate this new intersection between American politics and popular culture.”  But I don’t think that’s what they have in mind. They’re more impressed with how “Obama has slow-jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon, freestyled with Lin-Manuel Miranda on the White House lawn, sung Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” at the Apollo Theater, and rebuilt the White House tennis lawn into a basketball court.”

All this talk about Obama being “cool” made me recall how Toni Morrison had referred to Bill Clinton as our “first black president,” presumably because he played his sax on the Arsenio Hall TV show. I’d still like to know how a woman who is arguably one of our greatest contemporary writers could utter such an utterly, pathetically, stupid statement.

I’m not sure why some literary folks seem so clueless, but I have a theory on why so many Hollywood types (and the mass media) are enamored with the Clintons and Obamas. I think it has to do with the fact that their world is all about appearances and personalities, not substance and structure.

I think it’s encouraging that so many people and organizations are confronting Trump, but I think the danger is that many may be responding to his personality and may be deluded by the notion that getting rid of Trump will get rid of the problem.  In the same way that electing Obama or Clinton was supposed to solve the problem. They will judge Trump as they judged Obama, based on superficial qualities, failing to look deeper at structural issues and the nature of the real beast.

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Ajamu Baraka, the founding director of the US Human Rights Network and the Green Party candidate for Vice President in the 2016 election, pointed out recently that Obama signed into law a new Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) just before Christmas, further strengthening the repressive capacities of the state. “With the left’s attention fixed on Trump and its fear of the “new” authoritarianism that he is supposed to introduce, it has failed to confront or even be aware of the fact that the foundation for any kind of “neo-fascism” that might emerge in the US was constructed over the last 15 years of the combined Bush and Obama administrations,” he wrote.

Baraka’s article seems to seethe with anger as he talks about what he calls “Neo-McCarthyism,” the legislation and repressive actions of the Obama administration to curtail speech and control information. He accuses the “latte left” and their liberal allies of being in collusion with the power structure. His anger is understandable.

As he and others have pointed out, the “dark time” of the Trump administration is not a new predicament for oppressed communities and people. It is business as usual. Black liberation movements in the US have been ruthlessly repressed for many, many years. Baraka ends his essay with the challenge: “commit yourself to build a revolutionary movement or get out of the way.”

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Sometime between the election and the inauguration, I happened to hear an NPR interview with some foreign affairs “expert”. By this time, the project among neoliberals and the mainstream media to demonize both Trump and Putin was well underway. The person being interviewed proceeded to bash Trump—not for being authoritarian or a fascist or bellicose—but because Trump wanted to get along with Russia. In unequivocal language that I found a little shocking, he asserted that it was not the role of diplomacy or foreign affairs to get along with other nations. He disparaged Trump in an almost mocking tone for his naiveté in thinking that friendly relations might be a reasonable goal of foreign policy. The NPR interviewer failed to challenge him or ask for clarification.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Negotiation with foreign powers might run the risk of peace breaking out. The solution to every problem is violence and war. The only legitimate questions to be asked are: What kind of violence? What kind of weapons or tactics? How much violence will be enough? It’s all part of what theologian Walter Wink calls “the myth of the domination system”.

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No, Donald Trump did not unleash the dark forces of violence. Any idiot should be aware by now that this nation was founded on violence, with the genocide of native people and the brutal enslavement of black people. The nation grew, and grew wealthy and powerful—some would say great—by persistent and systemic violence against people all over the world, and at the expense of many other people here at home.

Yes, let’s honor King. Let’s honor his real legacy by challenging this shameful national legacy of institutional violence. Let’s begin with the revolution of values that he called for, and then move on to a revolution in the way we relate to each other and the rest of the world.

Don’t worry. You’ll never be accused of being “cool” for being a revolutionary. King was not cool. Thank God for that.

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While traveling the last few months, I’ve been reading a book of essays about poets and poetry by Robert Hass, a former US Poet Laureate. At the end of an essay that has nothing whatsoever to do with this particular post, Hass refers to the Vietnam War and one of the inventions of American technology that came out of the war. He says it “was a small antipersonnel bomb that contained sharp fragments of plastic which, having torn through the flesh and lodged in the body, could not be found by an X-ray.”

Although Hass may not have intended it, it occurred to me that the shards of this pernicious little bomb, hidden from sight or X-rays inside the body, could serve as an apt metaphor for the malady of the body politic, the national soul, if you will.  “It seems to me,” Hass goes on, “that there really are technics on the side of life and technics on the side of death.” (Hass actually uses the word technes, but in any case, the word comes from the Greek for art.) He ends his essay with the assertion that the “active and attentive capacity for creation that humans have” is finally the only freedom that we have.

They say that what distinguishes us from other animals is our ability to create. Should we create something that is about life, or something that is about death? That seems to me to be the ultimate question.

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At Standing Rock for Mother Earth …

Time to Slay the Black Snake

The Journey

The sky in Wisconsin had been overcast for days on end when we left for Standing Rock. The clouds persisted all the way through Minnesota and into North Dakota, across the Great Plains, through the prairie pothole region, and into Bismarck. At Mandan, we stopped at an auto parts store to buy a snow scraper. It was a provident decision.

The journey from Bismarck or Mandan to Standing Rock would normally be routine: take Highway 1806 south as it edges along the Missouri River and Lake Oahe, an immense reservoir about 230 miles long. But a bridge on 1806 is blocked, which necessitates taking Highway 6 further west, a more roundabout route.

The bridge has been the focal point of the conflict that has raged throughout the fall between the Sioux of the Standing Rock Reservation and law enforcement officials and the corporations attempting to complete an oil pipeline across the Missouri River. On Sunday night, November 20, about 400 peaceful Water Protectors gathered on the bridge near the reservation, praying, singing and appealing to authorities to open the bridge to give those opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) access to Mandan for supplies.

The Water Protectors were met by National Guard troops, local sheriff deputies, and police from various neighboring states. The police terrorized the Sioux and their supporters with water cannons, concussion grenades, rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and sound cannons that cause severe headaches and loss of balance. About 300 people were injured, many suffered hypothermia from being drenched with water in subfreezing temperatures, an Indian elder went into cardiac arrest, and a Jewish activist, Sophia Wilansky, 21, was hit in the arm with a concussion grenade.

The Morton County Sheriff’s Department initially denied responsibility for Wilansky’s injury, which basically destroyed her entire left arm. Wilansky’s father said she had welts all over her body from being shot with rubber bullets, and that it took hours for an ambulance to reach her due to roadblocks.

We arrive exactly one week after this incident. We travel Highway 6, a winding road through beautiful country: it looks like the west, with rolling hills, buttes jutting up here and there, ranches and grassland. Suddenly we see the sun, a red fireball dipping behind the hills to the west. My companion remarks that it is the brightest red she has ever seen the sun, and it is the first we have seen of it in days. Perhaps it is an omen.

“We must go beyond the arrogance of human rights. We must go beyond the ignorance of civil rights. We must step into the reality of natural rights because all of the natural world has a right to existence and we are only a small part of it. There can be no trade-off.”

                                                                        … John Trudell

We arrive at the Prairie Knights Casino and Resort that evening in time for a benefit concert with Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and a number of Native American musicians. It is a powerful experience.

Among the musicians performing are members of John Trudell’s band, Bad Dog. Trudell was a Santee Dakota activist, poet, musician and actor who led the American Indian Movement (AIM) for most of the 1970s. He died on December 8 of last year. A founder of the spoken word movement, he fused traditional sounds with his poetry and rock & roll. He had toured with Browne and Raitt in the past for various native causes, and this night his band played some of his poems set to music.

When we leave the concert, it is snowing steadily. I’m not anxious to make the 70-mile trip south to our hotel room in Mobridge, South Dakota, but there are no rooms available at the casino this night. Several harrowing hours later, we arrive safely.

First Visit to Camp

We make it back to the casino and lodge the next morning. It is still snowing. We meet a young man named Ethan who is looking for a ride out to the camp. We take him with us and make the seven-mile trek north to Standing Rock. Ethan is here long-term and he orients us as we drive.

The encampment at Standing Rock is actually a number of different camps and it is an amazing sight to see and experience. The main camp here is Oceti Sakawan (the Great Sioux Nation). To the north, tucked within this larger camp, is the Red Warrior camp. Just to the south, on the bank of the Cannonball River, is the Rosebud camp. To the east a few miles is the Sacred Stone camp.

en-solidaridad-28It is an immense occupation on land that the US government says belongs to it, but which the Water Protectors insist is part of the Standing Rock Reservation, unceded Lakota territory affirmed by the Ft. Laramie Treaty of 1851. Someone has noted that the last time there was a gathering this large at this spot was before the battle of the Little Big Horn.

Flags and banners line the main road (Highway 1806), and flags line both sides of the main camp “road.” The flags represent Indian tribes across the country, as well as various organizations proclaiming their support for the occupation.  There are more flags and banners everywhere you look and a maze of smaller “roads” crisscrosses the camp.

There are tipis, tents, yurts, old school buses and other forms of lodging scattered throughout. Some people are busy building more substantial wood structures to prepare for the harsh winter to come. There are nine kitchens in the camp, where communal meals are prepared and served. The two main gathering places are a large geodesic dome, where meetings are held, and the sacred circle, used for prayer and spiritual ceremonies, where a fire is always burning. And yes, there are porta potties.

To the north are hills, with floodlights pointing down on the camp. This is where law enforcement, I might as well call them the military, are staked out, watching our every move. Others have reported that helicopters are constantly hovering overhead, but I notice only one during our visit.

After exploring the camp for several hours, we leave before dark, returning to the casino where we have a room reserved for the next two nights.

Snowed In

It snowed all that night, and the next day. The wind howled and roared out of the northwest. It was a blizzard. No one was going anywhere. If anyone managed to get out of the parking lot, they got stuck on the road.

The lobby and halls and foyers of the lodge were filled with people: those who wanted to get to the camp and those who had come back for a respite. There was nothing to do but wait out the storm and strike up conversations with all the other “loiterers.”

All around the lodge there were signs posted indicating that people who were loitering and did not have a room might be asked to leave. (As far as I could tell, no one was ejected.) It seemed that some of the resort management may not have appreciated having a hundred Water Protectors and their supporters hanging out in the halls, perhaps discouraging other guests from Bismarck or elsewhere who come to gamble at the casino.

A rumor was circulating that DAPL had booked a large number of the 200 rooms in the resort in order to keep activists away. It seemed plausible. There were entire wings of the resort where there was nary a light on at night. The parking lot was half-empty, even before the blizzard hit.

dont-mix-oil-and-water-51I spoke with Paula, a woman from the Rosewood Sioux Tribe, who was visibly angry. “They turn off the elevator, the Wi-Fi reception, and other services,” she said. “Some people have cut deals with the oil companies.”

George, a longhaired, soft-spoken man, said he too was concerned that DAPL was holding rooms but not using them. He confided that he was part of a team that was providing trauma care for elders and others, using rooms in the lodge when they could get them. After a major action, one hundred people might come through, he said.

I met Lucky Marlovitz while she was standing in line at the check-in desk, hoping to get a room for Tuesday night. Lucky, who is affiliated with a Catholic Worker community in Chicago, had traveled here with two others. After leaving the Twin Cities on Sunday morning, their car had wiped out on black ice in western Minnesota. The vehicle landed on its side in a ditch and was totaled, but a stranger in a small town lent them a car so they could continue their journey.

My longest conversation was with Carole Eastman Standing Elk, a 75-year-old elder from the Lake Traverse Reservation in the northeastern corner of South Dakota. Part of the Santee Dakota group, she now lives in California.

snow-dapl-at-standing-rock-2Carole complained that a community center in the town of Cannonball, which had been used by the Water Protectors to take showers, warm up and prepare meals, was now closed, even though people in the district had voted for it to remain open. The district chairman was in favor of the pipeline, she said.

“Everyone should have a chance to come in and get warm and then go back,” she said. “In the old days, when we went to an action, we’d rent a room and then leave the door open so someone else could come and shower.”

An AIM member since she was 29 years old, Carole said people were gathered at Standing Rock because they recognized the importance of the Missouri River and the water. “If the river is polluted, how can people survive?” she asked. She said that Supreme Court decisions have upheld the rights of native people to the water. “It’s up to us to exercise our sovereignty.”

Don’t Blame the Natives: The Economics of Oil

The Dakota Access Pipeline is a $3.8 billion project that has been the subject of growing controversy throughout most of this year. The Standing Rock Sioux began a prayer vigil in April, and the conflict intensified in August when construction was scheduled to commence on the pipeline’s crossing of the Missouri under Lake Oahe, a half mile north of the reservation’s boundary. A lawsuit filed by the tribe, with the assistance of the environmental law firm Earthjustice, resulted in an injunction temporarily halting the Missouri crossing.

The Dakota Access Pipeline is proposed to stretch 1,172 miles from the Bakken shale oil fields in western North Dakota to Pakota, Illinois. It is designed to carry up to 570,000 barrels of oil per day. As of a month ago, it was 84 percent complete, with the Missouri River crossing being the unfinished link.

While listening to Jackson Browne perform at the concert at the Prairie Knights Casino, someone passed me a booklet about DAPL and the financing details regarding the oil that would flow through the pipeline. The ten-page, well-researched report was produced by Cathy Kunkel, energy analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, and Clark Williams-Derry, Director of Energy Finance for Sightline Institute. It was published last month.

It seems that oil production, similar to other extractive industries like mining, is subject to boom and bust cycles. The report contends that oil production in the Bakken region may now be experiencing the bust phase of the cycle and the pipeline could become what the authors call a “stranded asset.”

Energy Transfer Partners, the corporation behind the pipeline, proposed it in 2014 to transport oil from the “rapidly expanding Bakken and Three Forks production areas in North Dakota.” By mid-2016, DAPL had signed contracts for 90 percent of the pipeline’s capacity.

Phillips 66 signed a long-term commitment with DAPL and Marathon Petroleum announced its intention to follow suit. Phillips 66 and other oil companies announced plans to tie “collector” pipelines into DAPL.

no-spiritual-surrender-4The pipeline was originally proposed as a joint venture of Energy Transfer Partners and Phillips 66, the report says, but this past August ETP announced plans to sell 49 percent of its stake to a joint venture of Enbridge Energy Partners and Marathon. ETP would still hold the largest ownership stake. The report notes that the sale can’t be finalized until the Army Corps of Engineers grants its final easement on the project.

Meanwhile, prices for crude oil dropped from about $95 per barrel in 2013-14 to below $75 per barrel in December, 2014. Bakken drillers are cutting back on capital expenditures and production. Whiting Petroleum, one of the largest Bakken drillers, cut its capital budget for exploration and development by nearly 80 percent this year. “Recent forecasts of global oil prices do not suggest any recovery of Bakken oil production for at least a decade,” the report notes. “The World Bank’s forecast of oil prices through 2025 does not show oil prices climbing above $70 per barrel.”

Financial regulators have warned that aggressive acquisition and exploration by oil and gas companies from 2010 to 2014 led them to assume “unsustainable debt,” leaving them vulnerable when commodity prices collapsed. The Bakken drillers are confronting serious financial problems and three of the top companies have experienced credit rating downgrades.

The report goes on to argue that the Bakken already has sufficient pipeline, rail facilities and local refineries to handle all the oil it produces. The region’s oil transport infrastructure is already overbuilt, it says, with about 60 percent of its capacity currently unutilized.

no-water-no-life-11Since shipment of Bakken crude to the Pacific Northwest via rail has remained steady, “DAPL capacity could become superfluous by mid-2017. Unless oil prices spike and Bakken production rebounds promptly, the region may soon find its oil pipeline capacity is already overbuilt, even without DAPL.”

All these factors, as well as a unique investment structure–master limited partnership (MPL)–have put ETP in a bind. In an MLP, a large portion of revenue is pledged as distributions to equity investors and distribution growth is key to attracting new capital. ETP has been in a phase of rapid, high-risk growth, requiring it to raise capital quickly. Its assets grew from $4.4 billion in 2005 to $65.2 billion ten years later. The company is currently the lead developer of four other pipeline projects besides DAPL. In June of this year, Moody’s put ETP on a “negative outlook” due to its high leverage.

In papers it filed for the court case brought by the Standing Rock Tribe, ETP said it had made commitments to nine oil shippers to have the pipeline in place and operating by January 1, 2017. “These costs cannot be recovered and loss of shippers to the project could effectively result in project cancellation,” an ETP representative stated in a court document.

Camping Out

On Wednesday morning, with some help from new friends, we dig our car out and drive back to the Standing Rock camp. One of the first things we do is to attend one of the regularly scheduled direct action training sessions. It takes place by the Red Warrior Camp, in a one-room building warmed by a wood-burning stove. About 55 people are crowded into the little structure.

A woman from New Orleans who is a medic and part of the “decontamination unit” here demonstrates how to assist a person who has been subjected to pepper spray, mace or tear gas. Later, we go outside and practice how to protect each other when we are confronted by the over-zealous North Dakota law enforcement.

Remember not to antagonize the police, the trainer cautions. “No violence. Our goal is to protect the water, stand our ground. The people who live here will have to live with the aftermath for decades to come.”

My companion helps prepare meals in one of the kitchens while I explore the camp and attempt to photograph. My camera is tucked inside my jacket, nestled under a scarf, and I have a hand warmer inside each of my gloves.

On one of my walks, I meet Joseph Romandia. He is with the Chumash tribe, people of coastal California. He left California to escape the gangs, he says. He lived in Wisconsin for a while, but now makes his home on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where he works with youth and makes drums out of animal hides in order to support his family. He tells me about the third world conditions at Pine Ridge–the poverty and health problems–and I check some of the statistics later on my computer: one of the poorest counties in the United States, unemployment rate of 80 to 90 percent, alcoholism rate as high as 80 percent, life expectancy the second lowest in the hemisphere, trailing only Haiti.

Why are you here? I ask. “Because we drink from the same river at Pine Ridge that they drink from here,” he replies.


Joseph Romandia

Like Joseph, many of the people here have brought their families along. Dozens of children are sledding down a hill; some older ones are hitching a ride behind an auto, a dangerous sport that I too used to play as a teenager. And there are camp dogs, big and small, playing their doggy games.

I continue walking and meet Clarence, an imposing man from Wounded Knee. He is standing by his car with his wife and children. The car is jacked up, waiting for a new tire. I ask him how long he has been at the camp. “Since August,” he responds. How long will you be staying? I ask. “Until it’s over,” he says.

There are native people from all over the country here. There are also white, black and brown people from all over the country. More than a few people have come from other countries. Walking down the main road, I meet Julie, a young woman who hails from Paris, France. She tells me this is the second time she has flown here to spend time at the camp.

The people I meet, despite the cold, are warm, determined, resilient and confident. They are water protectors but they are also caretakers. I’m not certain if it is a skill they have always known or something they learned in the camp, but it seems their nature to look after each other. Something remarkable is happening here.

That night, we bed down with our sleeping bags on the dirt floor of the geodesic dome. Others gather around us and do the same. A man approaches, concerned for our comfort. He finds a large fleece blanket and covers us with it. The elders are still singing down by the sacred circle when we fall asleep.

About six in the morning, we wake to the sound of someone speaking on the PA, a funny but persistent monologue goading us to action. Good morning DAPL, Good morning CNN, Get up, time to pray, We can’t slay the black snake if you stay in bed all day, When I was a kid, we used to walk ten miles … and on and on, a native version of Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam.

Soon we join a circle of prayer down at the campfire. Then we are instructed to each take some tobacco and sage and we walk in quiet procession down to the Cannonball River, with the elder women leading us. At the river, one by one, we sprinkle the tobacco and sage on the water and we sing songs. Another day at Standing Rock has begun.

▪ ▪ ▪


I wrote most of this on Sunday, as snow was falling in Wisconsin. The Sunday before, we had just arrived at Standing Rock. The Sunday before that was “Bloody Sunday” on the bridge near Standing Rock.

This Sunday the US Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would not grant an easement to Energy Transfer Partners to complete its pipeline project. Instead, it would initiate an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) process to determine if there are other feasible alternatives to the proposed project, such as rerouting the last segment of the pipeline.

Of course, this is reason to celebrate and is testimony to the courageous and creative organizing work of the Standing Rock Tribe, the Lakota and Dakota people, and all their supporters around the country.

But we should bear in mind that the Army Corps is the same Army Corps responsible for building five dams on the Missouri River in the 1960s, flooding over 200,000 acres on the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River reservations, submerging towns under Lake Oahe and displacing many native people.

We should also bear in mind that Donald Trump has substantial investments in Energy Transfer Partners and Phillips 66, (OOPS! It’s just been reported that he’s divested of his holdings in ETP, which could be even worse), and that Kelcy Warren, ETP’s chief executive, has contributed handsomely to Trump’s presidential campaign and the Republican Party.

I want to close by quoting the last paragraph of an essay written by Bruce R. Ough, resident bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota Area of the United Methodist Church, an essay he wrote shortly after the Standing Rock Sioux filed their request for an injunction against the Dakota Access Pipeline this past summer:

Whatever the outcome of the court’s ruling, this may be the moment God is giving us all to come together, not as antagonists in bondage to our traumatic past, but as mutually empowered advocates for the common good and the sacredness of the waters and all of life. This may be the moment God has given us to use our power to define a just and life-giving future.


I’m sorry, but I’m not sorry for not voting for Hillary.

Liberals discover hate, so thank you Donald Trump.

I’m sorry but I’m not sorry.

No, I don’t wish for her to be locked up. I believe in rehabilitation. I voted for Jill Stein and I don’t regret it. We still have the right to vote for a person who deserves our respect and trust, even if it’s a symbolic gesture.

Yes, I know, now we have a president-elect who is racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, etc., etc. How many times do liberals and self-styled “progressives” need to repeat the obvious? This was HRC’s campaign platform, after all. Donald Trump embodied all the odious values she stood against. She couldn’t tell the American people what she stood for because neoliberalism, endless war and more of the same wouldn’t have sold well.

But now, praise be, Donald Trump has given us that one great gift for which we should truly be thankful. He has stripped the American people of all their fantasies and illusions. Or at least we can hope.

Soon we will not have a black president anymore, so we won’t be able to slumber for another eight years, content with the imbecile liberal illusion that the country is in good hands. We also won’t have a woman president, at least for the foreseeable future, so we won’t be able to return to our liberal sleep with the equally imbecile notion that the country is in good hands just because a woman occupies the oval office.

Now we have precisely what we deserve: a white, blathering, bigoted billionaire. All those inclined to make important political decisions based on identity politics can easily see that Donald Trump is not black, is not a woman, and (presumably) is not gay. So we are in trouble. And yes, he has that fatal flaw, he likes to grope women. (I suspect that JFK and Bill Clinton, to name just two former presidents, forgot about more women than Donald ever managed to touch.) But the point is that we are probably getting exactly what we see.

In other words, it’s time to wake up from the fantasy world of American politics and face the music. The dictum “Don’t mourn, organize” comes to mind, but first things first. After sleeping so long we should catch up on a little history and find out what’s been going on for the last eight years, the past decades, and the past century. (No, don’t turn on NPR. You won’t find it there.)

Go back to at least 1948, the year I was born, when George Kennan told it straight, about how “the greatest country on earth” (to use Michelle Obama’s term) had fifty percent of the world’s wealth, but only six percent of its population. “Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security,” Kennan advised.

Today we have five percent of the world’s population and consume a mere 25 percent of its resources. You can see the challenge ahead. I suppose that’s what the Donald means when he boasts he will “make America great again.” Unlike neoliberals, he’s not afraid to say that we mean to get the share we deserve, come hell or high water, just the way he modeled for us in his business career.

So anyway, we had a Cold War. Were you around for that? There was this scary thing called communism. No fear, it’s gone now. The only countries left that could possibly be called communistic are a few island nations that global warming will wash away in a couple decades.

Andrew Levine, a scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and a former philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, pointed out in an essay this past August that the old Cold War was supposedly a conflict between Soviet communism and American capitalism.  In truth, he said, it was probably always about “political and economic domination of the world.”

“If the world survives Hillary,she will be remembered for her role in resurrecting the Cold War.”

– Andrew Levine

Now we have no communists left, but those pesky Russians are still around and we also have China vying for political and economic dominance. And, lo and behold, we have a new Cold War, one lacking the old ideology.  Levine and many others concur that Hillary is one of its most gung ho warriors.

“Every American president since Bill Clinton has played a role in bringing it on,” wrote Levine, “mainly, but not only, by bringing NATO, originally an anti-Soviet military alliance, right up to Russia’s borders, contrary to express promises Ronald Reagan made to Mikhail Gorbachev. Promoting anti-Russian (and often fascist-friendly) political parties and movements in Ukraine and other parts of the old Russian Empire has had an effect as well.”

Hillary, with the assistance of other neoliberal leaders and the acquiescence of the mainstream media, has demonized Vladimir Putin. Count on her to be more hostile towards China than Obama has been, but Russia remains her number one enemy.

Levine was writing with the clear assumption that Hillary would be the next president but it was obviously not something he was looking forward to with eager enthusiasm. “If the world survives Hillary,” he opined, “she will be remembered for her role in resurrecting the Cold War.”

The old Cold War was fought through surrogates like Korea and Vietnam. Today’s geopolitical struggles are occurring in Libya, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. These current disasters have Hillary’s fingerprints all over them from her time as Secretary of State. But these proxy wars are probably preferable to what Hillary might have done as president, Levine thinks. No longer restrained by Obama’s cautiousness, her recklessness could lead to consequences impossible to foresee and too horrifying to contemplate.

▪ ▪ ▪

I am down in Florida as I write this. It’s a sunny Saturday morning in downtown Sarasota. After browsing the farmer’s market, I wander near the waterfront and happen upon an anti-Trump rally. (They are happening all over the country today).

People are holding signs and placards. One large one proclaims: We must stop hate from ruling the land. It’s an admirable sentiment and I’m not disappointed that these folks are here. But I would find it hard to feel a part of this demonstration today. Whether stated or not, the implication seems to be that hate just arrived in this country with the election of Donald Trump.

I pass by three people and overhear their conversation. One woman is saying to the other two that she was not so sure about Hillary but that she really loved Obama. I stop and ask her: “What was it you loved about him?” It’s the usual response. He was so intelligent. He spoke so well.

I don’t say so, but I agree. I will miss his cautious intelligence and I will miss his fine words, even if I couldn’t believe any of them. (Trump, at best, sounds like someone you meet at a tavern who has had a few too many drinks.) I even enjoyed Obama’s self-deprecating sense of humor, like when he read his “mean tweets” on the Jimmy Kimmel show just before the election. He is likable; certainly he could not be full of hate like the blustering Trump.

So I ask the woman what Obama has done, what it is about his policies that she likes, and she really can’t respond. I provide her a few answers, but I am angry and so tired of this. In what world have all these good-hearted liberals been living the last eight years? Why can’t I join them in that world so I too can smile in satisfaction when the black, suave, smooth-talking president speaks and get angry when I hear the foolish-talking president-elect with the orange hair? Identity politics can set you free so long as you don’t try to identify with most of the people on the planet.

So how about this Obama legacy that Hillary was hoping to build on?

  • He built on what Bush began, what Bush once called nation building, and escalated it into one of the biggest nation-bashing programs in history. But that was just a matter of national security. No hate involved.
  • He took home the Nobel Peace Prize and proceeded to bomb seven Muslim nations in six years: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Syria. At times, he was bombing most of them simultaneously. But no hate here. Just national security.
  • Borrowing once again from the Bush Administration’s modest beginning, Obama pioneered a whole new kind of warfare–drone warfare–using computer screens instead of soldiers to kill people in distant lands. It enables him and his cronies to sit comfortably in the White House and make up a weekly “kill list,” like you might prepare a grocery list. Then there are the “Terror Tuesday” meetings, where the Assassin-in-Chief eliminates anyone he thinks needs to die, whether terrorist, innocent civilian or occasional US citizen. We will soon have a new $100 million drone base in Africa to make this extermination program even easier. Nothing personal here, certainly no hate. Just national security.
  • Since taking office, our peace president (and the Madam Secretary) have struck 42 separate deals for over $15 billion in weapons for Saudi Arabia, more than any other administration in history. (Much of this weaponry, used to slaughter civilians in Yemen, is still in the pipeline, so it will be up to Trump to make good on all these business deals.) This is just the business of national security. No hate involved.
  • Of course, it’s best to maintain the balance of power. Going back to the Iran-Iraq war, the US has always found it expedient to supply both sides in a conflict, so neither can obtain an edge. So Obama recently signed a deal for $38 billion in military aid to Israel, (our surrogate in the Mideast), so that country can continue its brutal occupation of the Palestinians while keeping the Saudis in check. No hate involved here, purely national security.
  • On the domestic front, Obama has deported more immigrants than any other president in history. Nope. No hate, just national security.
  • On the campaign trail in 2007, Obama promised “No more secrecy,” vowing to eliminate illegal wiretapping and protect personal privacy. Instead, he has created the most intrusive surveillance state in the history of the world, with a price tag for the spied-on taxpayers of well over $100 billion dollars. With help from Great Britain, the US has created the technological infrastructure that enables it to spy on most of the countries of the world and their private citizens. When the Edward Snowden leaks revealed widespread government eavesdropping on the phone calls of American citizens, Obama’s revised message was: “I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.” No hate here. Hate is a personal emotion and this is the most impersonal of policies, since national security requires that every person in the world be spied on.
  • Related to this, Obama also pledged that whistle-blowers would be protected and encouraged under his administration. Instead, using archaic laws, he has prosecuted more whistle-blowers and journalists than any other president in history. No hate. Just national security.
  • Obama also pledged there would be transparency in the negotiation of future trade deals. Instead, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement was negotiated entirely in secrecy. No hate, just national security.

TPP, NAFTA and other multi-national trade deals are the cornerstone of neoliberalism. Sanders and Trump came out strong against them, and even Hillary felt compelled to cave, but Obama stood adamant till the end.

So how would Hillary’s presidency have differed from Obama’s? A more bellicose and warlike imperialism, for starters. A ramped-up Cold War, with a more hostile posture towards Putin and Russia. Rabid and unequivocal support for Israel and its occupation. More weapons and other gifts for repressive regimes in the Mideast (as long as they reciprocate with gifts for the Clinton Foundation). Clinton was blatantly critical of Obama’s policies in the Mideast, particularly regarding Syria. Hillary’s Syria policy would have been disastrous and possibly suicidal. Any of the above ventures may have precipitated a nuclear war.

“When American politicians speak, it’s as if they want to disillusion you forever on the significance and veracity of words.”

– Paul Street

How, if at all, might Trump be better than Hillary would have been? Perhaps more inclined to cooperate rather than fight with Russia, to discourage more wars in the Middle East, a willingness to rethink the NATO alliance, and a more skeptical attitude towards “free trade.”

In what ways is Trump likely to be worse? On the domestic front, a Donald administration is likely to be a disaster on most issues, though conceivably not much worse than a neoliberal Democratic one. (After all, Hillary was not even willing to speak out, during the last days of her campaign, against the burgeoning police state protecting the Dakota Access Pipeline project at Standing Rock.) But a Trump presidency will surely be an abomination when it comes to any issue relating to the environment, particularly global warming.

▪ ▪ ▪

In the end, the Obama “legacy” will be just a string of pretty words, signifying nothing. But the words, spoken in a clear, cautious, intelligent manner, were able to seduce, and they seduced many people looking for change, both here and overseas.

Trump’s “gift” to us is that his mean words are simple and we know what they mean and we know that Trump means what he says. There is no excuse for any illusions or delusions.

Paul Street, writing in CounterPunch at the time of the Democratic National Convention (DNC), said: “When American politicians speak, it’s as if they want to disillusion you forever on the significance and veracity of words. They seem to hope to destroy your faith in the liberating potential of humanity’s glorious capacity for language. They and their writers and speaking consultants craft rhetoric and delivery to turn wrong into right, falsehood into truth, fiction into fact, left into right, war into peace, and hate into love. It’s straight out of Orwell, almost.”

During the first two nights of the DNC, Street continued, “one speaker after another, including Bernie Sanders, has stepped up to the platform to depict the right-wing fanatic, Wall Street darling, and Pentagon-endorsed war hawk and arch-neoliberal Hillary Clinton as some kind of progressive people’s champion of workers, minorities, Black Americans, peace, justice, and disadvantaged children.”

Later in the same piece, Street wrote: “Hillary and Barack Obama were for all intents and purposes ideological twins. They were and remain both equally vapid and vacuous neoliberal imperialists masquerading as progressives. They were and remain deeply committed to the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire beneath their respective highly identity-politicized candidate brandings.”

CounterPunch editor Jeffrey St. Clair, writing about the DNC on the same day, summed up the failed promise of the Obama presidency with these few words: “Barack Obama possesses so many scintillating skills, perhaps more skills than any other political figure of the modern era. Yet he put those magical gifts to such meagre, timid and often brutal uses. What a waste. His is the tragedy of a squandered presidency.”

▪ ▪ ▪

José Martí once said that “there are two kinds of people in the world: those who love and create, and those who hate and destroy.” Martí was a Cuban poet, a journalist, and a revered leader of his country’s long struggle for independence during the last half of the 19th Century. He lived for a while in the United States and admired the country’s democratic structures but he was well aware that the goal of the US was to dominate Cuba.

In Florida, I’m reading poetry and essays about poetry. I enjoy it and it tends to help me see the world in a wider context. I’m reading poet Robert Hass with his thoughts on poet Robert Lowell. Hass is focusing on a particular poem of Lowell’s that he admires. He posits that the poem is not “political” because “a political criticism of any social order implies both that a saner one can be imagined and the hope or conviction that it can be achieved.”

Lowell’s poem, argues Hass, has grief and moral rage but no vision of an alternative world. Hass continues to explicate the poem, alluding to mythology and Christianity, and finally the concept of spiritual redemption. Like Lowell, Hass finds it easier to accept cruelty as the “first fall,” not pride or disobedience, (as in the biblical myth), “which the violence of the state has made to seem, on the whole, sane and virtuous.”

“There is no sense here of the crucifixion as a redemption,” Hass writes, and this intrigues me. The early Church celebrated the resurrection, not the crucifixion. I never could get myself to believe that this act of supreme violence, the torture and legal execution of a Jewish rebel and prophet by the Roman Empire, could somehow redeem mankind. It never made any sense to me how the murder of one Jewish rebel, or that of tens of thousands of other ones, for that matter, could redeem anything or anyone.

The theologian Walter Wink has written extensively about what he calls the “domination society” and the myth of “redemptive violence.” He argues that this myth is counter to authentic Christianity and traces it back to ancient Babylon. Today, he says, the myth of redemptive violence undergirds American popular culture, civil religion, nationalism and foreign policy.

Wink explains that John, in the Book of Revelation, revealed that a monster from Babylonian myth that once represented chaos, the ultimate threat to the security of the state, had come to represent the spiritual principle behind empire. “Now evil is represented, not as the threat of anarchy, but as the system of order that institutionalized violence as the foundation of international relations … order is not the opposite of chaos, but rather the means by which a system of chaos among the nations is maintained,” Wink writes. “Violence tends to turn something into the very thing it opposes. Empire is not, then, the bulwark against disorder, but disorder’s quintessence.”

“The rules by which society functions are backed by sanctions,” he continues, … public censure, fines, arrest, incarceration, execution, but their real power depends on trust. When a government or institution must resort to threat or the use of force, its power has already eroded, and the system is in crisis.

“An empire is, by its very nature, a system in permanent crisis of legitimation. It is not a natural system, but an artificial amalgam held together by force. That is why propaganda is so essential to it.”

Where does all this lead? What do we do now? Perhaps we can start by stripping all the clothes off the Empire and examining it closely in all its ugly nakedness. Perhaps we can examine all the myths by which we live. Some are very simple: Democrats are less warlike than Republicans, we are a special people, our violence is always good and everyone else’s is evil.

Perhaps we can begin to challenge the idolatry of violence when we see it. Many people are upset about Stephen Bannon but how come so few seem bothered that Henry Kissinger, one of the greatest war criminals of all time, has played advisor to both Hillary and Trump? Why was there not a massive outcry when Madeleine Albright, responsible for engineering the genocide of the East Timorese by Indonesia as well as other mass atrocities equally heinous, chided young women for supporting Bernie over Hillary, accusing them of not being real feminists?

Speaking of Bernie, he managed to stir the imagination of millions of young people. We need to build on that, not mourn the demise of a neoliberal, and begin to imagine a society and a world that today seems impossible. We need to think beyond identity politics and even imagine a world beyond nation states, which are only dinosaurs left over from a more primitive world.

It is exciting that Black Lives Matter activists and Palestinians are reaching out to each other in solidarity, recognizing that their oppression is similar. And now, these groups and others are reaching out in solidarity to Native Americans at Standing Rock. We must support and join these struggles in whatever way we can. If “political” means to have the capacity to imagine a saner social order, as the poet implied, then we all need to become political in that respect. We need to imagine a social order beyond empire, one that nourishes and sustains us, and find the courage to create it.

▪ ▪ ▪

My first impulse was not to write this essay at all. I thought that Jeffrey St. Claire’s piece in CounterPunch right after the election said it all. Please check it out. Also, Naomi Klein’s article in the Guardian is brief but equally good in explaining who is and who is not to blame for the rise of Trump and the debacle of the 2016 election.