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From Valor to Squalor

When Johnny Comes Marching Home

by Rev. WILLIAM E. ALBERTS

I was raised in a family with a proud military history going back to the Civil War.  My father carried on that proud tradition by joining the Army in World War I and serving in France—and afterwards he became a lifelong member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.  My three older brothers followed in his footsteps in World War II, also in the Army, and Air Force, serving in war zones.  And right out of high school, I followed them, joining the Navy and becoming a signalman on a destroyer escort, accompanying a baby aircraft carrier patrolling for German submarines in the North Atlantic.  Our parents proudly displayed a banner in their window, with four stars on it representing four sons serving their country, overseas.  Upon our discharge, we, like millions of other veterans, took advantage of certain benefits, which was how my college tuition, and that of countless other GIs, was paid.  There is a radically different reality today.

When Johnny comes marching home now, his reality changes from valor to squalor.  Johnny’s soldier descendants are lauded for dutifully and bravely fighting to spread democracy and protect our freedom, when, in reality, they are serving the political and corporate ruling elites’ imperialistic goals of conquest and plunder.  Once they have given their all and served their purpose, they are discarded—like empty shell casings.

Their reality is seen in bipartisan politicians creating a deficit of trillions of dollars to fund the unlawful wars of choice against Afghanistan and Iraq, and then failing to anticipate and provide adequate care for the large number of wounded veterans returning home.  The long delays and cover-ups in treating veterans at the Phoenix VA medical center and elsewhere indicate that no soldiers are left behind—until they come home.  Never mind that there would be no need for such extensive medical care for “wounded warriors” if former President George W. Bush and his vice president Dick Cheney– and their neocon advisors—had not launched these unnecessary, illegal pre-emptive wars.

Criminal wars take a lot of “valor.”  A patriotic pedestal is created to seduce fighting age Americans—with their parents’ blessings—to sacrifice themselves on the altar of American imperialism.  Tragically, many are led to believe, “My country, right and wronged.”  Thus former president Bush could turn the meaning of the horrible 9/11 attacks inside out in repeatedly saying of the attackers, “They are evildoers who hate our freedoms.”  In reality, many people in the world hate our government precisely because of US policies that interfere with their freedom, which finally led to the 9/11 attacks.

America’s violation of other peoples’ space and freedom is what Osama bin Laden would have told us if he had been taken alive and brought to trial.  He would have expanded on a statement he made in a 1997 interview with CNN:

[The United States] wants to occupy our countries, steal our resources, impose agents    on us to rule us and then wants us to agree to all this.  . . . If we refuse to do so, it says we are terrorists.  When Palestinian children throw stones against the Israeli occupation the U.S. says they are terrorists.  Whereas when Israel bombed the United Nations building in Lebanon while it was full of children and women, the U.S. stopped any plan to condemn Israel.  . . .

Wherever we look, we find the U.S. as the leader of terrorism and crime in the World. (“An Emblem of Evil in the U.S., an Icon to the Cause of Terror,” By Kate Zernike and Michael T. Kaufman, The New York Times, May 2, 2011)

Our government could not handle that truth.  Thus Osama bin Laden was killed—and we Americans were denied his day in court.

It takes a lot of propaganda to get young Americans to engage in “valorous” military behavior.  Former president Bush was up to the task, repeating in various ways, “America in the greatest nation in the world.”  And later, as reported, he said, “Since 9/11 more than 2.5 million Americans have worn the uniform,” and “faced down our enemies, they liberated millions, and in so doing showed the true compassion of a great nation.”  He continued, “They are the 1 percent of America who kept the 99 percent safe.”  He ended with, “And there’s no doubt in my mind that as a result of their leadership, America will continue to be the greatest country on the face of the Earth.” (“Remarks by President George W. Bush at the Bush Institute’s Empowering Our Nation’s Warriors Summit,” Posted by Hannah Abney, www.bushcenter.org, Feb. 19, 2014)

My how the victors interpret valor.  Rather than “liberated,” millions of Iraqi civilians have been killed and uprooted and turned into widows and orphans.  And the Afghan people are enduring a similar kind of American “liberation.”  The real beneficiaries of those criminal wars are the Americans and allies who have profited from them financially and politically.

President Barack Obama has followed in George Bush’s American-valorizing footsteps.  In a West Point commencement address, Obama told the graduating cadets, “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.  But what makes us exceptional,” he said, “is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.”  If that is not enough to make the graduating cadets and others proud to serve their country, he added another valorous note: “The United States is and remains the one indispensable nation.  That has been true for the century past, and it will be true for the century to come.” (Full transcript of President Obama’s commencement address at West Point,” The Washington Post, May 28, 2014)

“Our willingness to affirm . . . international norms and the rule of law . . . through our actions.”  It is as if the Obama administration had not intensified drone warfare, violating the national sovereignty of other countries, filling their skies with dread, and killing and injuring thousands of innocent children and women and men in America’s so-called “war on terrorism.”  It is as if the human rights-denying Guantanamo detention center does not still exist on his watch.

Shades of Hitler’s pure, superior “master race,” with its goals of exterminating “poisonous” Jews and Others and ruling the world.  Today, the “master race” has been replaced by an “exceptional” master nation.  An “indispensable” nation that brands as “terrorists” those opposing its pursuit of world domination and disposes of them.  Fascism wrapped in democracy lite, divinely ordained by Christocentric belief in America as “the light of the world,” like a “city set on a hill,” letting its “light shine before men.” (Matthew 5: 14-16)  The master nation, sophisticatedly articulated by well dressed, polished men especially, with an American flag pinned to their lapel, near their heart.  A classic example is the self-proclaimed “war president,” George W. Bush, who, after invading Afghanistan and Iraq declared, “By our effort, we have lit a fire . . . in the minds of men.  It warms those who feel its power, it burns those who fight its progress, and one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.” (“Bush: ‘No justice without freedom,’” transcript of second Inaugural address, CNN.com, 1/20/2005)  At this very moment that “untamed fire of freedom” is tearing Iraq apart.

The militarism pervading America is robed in “valor.”  No perilous draft to be resisted by many inductees and their fathers and mothers.  Just enough lack of adequate educational and other training programs and jobs to force young people into seeing military service as a way to better themselves.

An accommodating mainstream media is reinforcing the militarism.  With television newscasters, program hosts and announcers of sporting and other events repeating the same stock statement to the men and women in uniform present, and not present: “Thank you for your sacrifice in protecting our country.”  How in anyone’s name do invading other countries and exploiting, killing and oppressing their citizens involve “protecting our freedom?”  These media guardians of the status quo should be saying, “Thank you for protecting our exceptional entitlement.”

The aggrandizement of and patriotic appeal to “support the troops” work well– until Johnny comes marching home.  Then for many veterans, the valor ends and the squalor begins.

The squalor of veterans reveals how the ruling political and corporate elite really view young Americans who become soldiers and do their bidding—supposedly in “the service of the country.”  Bipartisan politicians spared no expense to fund the criminal wars against Afghanistan and Iraq.  But when it comes to paying for the medical care of the many soldiers who offered themselves up sacrificially, Republicans in Congress especially are found withholding.

Real Clear Politics writer Joe Conason exposes the warmongering exploitation of America’s young men and women in a piece dealing with the causes of the VA scandal.  He states, “Anyone paying attention knows by now that the secret waiting lists at VA facilities—which may have led to the premature deaths of scores of injured veterans—are a direct consequence of policy decisions made in the White House years before President Barack Obama got there.  The misguided invasion of Iraq,” Conason, continues, “carried out with insufficient numbers of troops shielded by insufficient armor—led directly to thousands of new cases of traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other physical and mental disabilities requiring speedy treatment.”

Joe Conason then points the finger of accountability at Congress:

A substantial portion of the estimated $3 trillion price of that war is represented by the cost of decent care for veterans.  But even as the war raged on, the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress repeatedly refused to appropriate sufficient funding for veterans’ health care.  This financial stinginess toward vets was consistent with Bush’s refusal to take any steps for his expensive war (and decision to protect his   skewed tax cuts instead).

As Alec MacGillis pointed out this week in the New Republic, legislators who voted for the war while opposing expansion of the VA are hypocrites, particularly when they claim to care about veterans.  So are the Republican governors who refuse to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which keeps hundreds of thousands of impoverished vets from getting health care.  . . .

The pattern along party lines is clear: Republicans regularly propose cuts in VA funding and oppose increases sponsored by Democrats—a pattern that extends  back to the first years of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts and continues to this day.

As recently as last February, Senate Republicans filibustered a Democratic bill that would have added $20 billion in VA funding over the next decade and would have built at least 26 new VA health care facilities.  The Republicans killed that bill because Democratic leaders refused to add an amendment on Iran sanctions— designed to scuttle the ongoing nuclear negotiations—and because they just don’t    want to spend more money on vets. (“In VA Scandal, Accountability for All—  Including Congress,” May 24, 2014)

In February, Congress voted down a reported $21 billion bill that, as reported, would have expanded “VA health care benefits, including immunizations, chiropractic care, treatment for traumatic brain injuries, wellness promotion, dental care, and reproductive services for veterans unable to produce children because of battlefield injury.”  The bill would “also authorize the funding of 27 new VA health clinics.” (“Veterans’ groups blast GOP senator they say didn’t do enough to fund VA health care,” By Bruce Alpert, nola.com, May 27, 2014)

Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, principal author of the bill, responded by focusing on the real priorities of many in Congress: “I personally, I have to say this honestly, have a hard time understanding how anyone could vote for tax breaks for billionaires, for millionaires, for large corporations and then say we don’t have the resources to protect our veterans.” (“Veterans’ benefits bill blocked in Senate,” By Rebecca Kaplan, CBS NEWS, Feb. 27, 2014)  What Congress now does with the follow-up bill refashioned by Sanders remains to be seen.

Very much related here is the intense negative reaction of members of Congress to prisoner of war Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s release by the Taliban in exchange for five of their detainees held at Guantanamo detention center.  Republican critics especially claim that the five “hardened” Taliban “terrorists” will return to the battlefield and endanger American lives, and that the prisoners’ swap will only encourage the Taliban to capture and bargain more American soldiers.  Besides, even Democratic Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia has been quoted as saying, “I think we can all agree we’re not dealing with a war hero here.” (“Senators Show Frustration After Briefing on Ex-P.O.W.: Fear That Exchange Puts U.S. Lives at Risk,” By Michael D. Shear and Jeremy W. Peters, The New York Times, June 5, 2014)

The angry reaction to Sgt. Bergdahl’s release, inflamed mainly by Republican politicians, spread across the country, to Hailey, Idaho, whose 8,000 citizens had planned a hero’s welcome for their favorite son, a prisoner of war for five years.  But they cancelled the celebration after critics—including certain soldiers in Bergdahl’s unit whose press conferences were arranged by Republican operatives—called him a “deserter.”  Even the town of Hailey itself felt the fury of Bergdahl’s betrayal– and exposure– of “American exceptionism.”  As reported, “Hailey Chamber of Commerce president Jane Drussel said that she’s received dozens of hateful e-mails and phone calls after she was quoted in news stories saying the town was jubilant that Bergdahl had been released.  ‘The joy has all of a sudden become not so joyful,’ she said.” (“Town cancels its celebration of soldier’s release, return,” By Brian Skoloff, Associated Press, The Boston Globe, June 5, 2014)

The angry reactions of politicians and certain others is not believed to be about the release of “hardened” Taliban “terrorists” who will endanger American lives.  Nor about a prisoner swap encouraging the Taliban to capture more American soldiers for similar exchanges.  It is believed to be about Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl blowing the whistle on “American exceptionalism”—on America’s not so  valorous criminal war in Afghanistan.

Michael Hastings revealed why so many are up in arms over Bowe Bergdahl laying down his.  In a Rolling Stone interview with Hastings, Bergdahl’s mother and father lead us to their son’s truth.  They shared with Hastings his final e-mail to them, in which he expressed “his complete disillusionment with the war effort.”  He wrote,

The future is too good to waste on lies . . . And life is too short to care for the damnation  of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong.  I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be american.  The horror of the self-righteous  arrogance that they thrive in.  It is all revolting. (“America’s Last Prisoner of War, June 7, 2012)

“American exceptionalism” evidently got to Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.  He told his parents that he “became disgust[ed] with America’s approach to the war”– the reality “on the ground that seemed to represent the exact opposite of the concerted campaign to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of average Afghans envisioned by counterinsurgency strategists.”  He wrote, “I am sorry for everything here.  . . . These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.”  A traumatic incident was “seeing an Afghan child run over by an MRAP,” which led Bergdahl to say, “We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks. . . . We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.  . . . The horror that is america is disgusting.” (Ibid)

The Democratic senator from West Virginia is right: Sgt. Bergdahl is not “a war hero.”  He is a peace hero!  A whistleblower, who exposed “American exceptionalism,” by courageously decided to walk away from an unnecessary, criminal war.  A war launched by politicians who talk about “valor” and create misery, then squalor.

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl provides an ethical model to be emulated by men and women everywhere.  He reveals that no one is “exceptional”– that we are all human together.  He is to be lauded by clergypersons in pulpits and public places throughout the land.

Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy.  Both a Unitarian and United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics, religion and pastoral care.  His book, A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review in The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling.  It is available on Amazon.com.  His e-mail address is: wm.alberts@gmail.com.