In “The Absence of a Draft Makes Americans Feel Immune to War” (December 7, 2011), Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report makes the argument that an all-volunteer military has ushered in the “most militaristic period in American history.” While I agree with Ford that this is indeed a grotesquely militaristic environment in which we now live, I cannot agree that the existence of an all-volunteer military has caused the latter to take place.
As a war resister from the Vietnam era, I can testify to the fact that the military was at least as vicious in its conduct of the war in Southeast Asia during the 1960s and early 1970s as it is conducting wars today. I make the point in my memoir Notes of a Military Resister that not a single division within the Army during that war was without a war crime attributed to it. Untold millions were killed, and the effects of that era are still being felt in the daily reality of abandoned land mines and the effects of Agent Orange. So much for an egalitarian military following the dictates of the rules of war!
The problem with militarism in the US is not the presence or absence of a military draft, but rather the hold that militarism and its trappings have on this society. Whether it’s for the purpose of nation building or the “protection” of big business interests (including military contractors) abroad, the military is the tool of choice for this nation. If the military existed for the defense of the nation, as it should have on September 11, 2001, then an argument could be make for the maintenance of a standing military force. But both the military and “intelligence” failed miserably in the months leading up to that tragedy, and the decade that followed has seen the emergence of a nation dedicated to constant warfare and an “intelligence” apparatus that uses technology to spy on anyone. The Patriot Act is but the most obvious expression of a government at war with its own people. In fact, the passage of the most recent Defense Authorization Act (signed by Barack Obama), allows the military to hold any citizen that the government deems a terrorist without that person’s access to the Bill of Rights. Chilling!
The question that begs asking is: how did this dreadful and dangerous scenario ever come to happen in the US? Readers have to go back to the administration of Ronald Reagan, The Great Communicator (actually, the Great Nincompoop), to find the seeds of this contemporary expression of endless war and militarism. Reagan made war acceptable to masses of those in the US through his conduct of the policy of low-intensity warfare. Since this policy was directed, for the most part, against Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, most in the US felt no impact of these theaters of battle. Iraq, during the administration of George H.W. Bush, was next to lineup in the crosshairs of US policy. Oil and the projection of US power were the twin objectives of that war waged against our former ally Saddam Hussein. One day a dictator can be photographed shaking hands with US officials, and the next day he can be the target of our military might.
Following Bush, there was a bit of a hiatus in massive war making on the part of this nation. Then came George W. Bush and the hijacked general election. Osama bin Laden did the rest, allowing the opening up of the door of preemptive warfare that continues to this day in places as disparate as Somalia, Pakistan, Columbia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, to name a few. In the case of Iraq, as the last US troops leave, violence continues in the wake of the trashing of one of the “nurseries” of civilization.
Barack Obama carried on the policies of Bush without missing a step militarily. As the longest war in US history continues to drag on, Afghanistan, by most accounts, is in no better position as a society than it was at the onset of the war in October 2001. Women still suffer the consequences of right wing religious intolerance there. Since so little of actual democracy exists in the US today that hasn’t been bought off or privatized by massive business and military conglomerates, we’re not exactly the shining example to export our ideas of democracy anywhere else on the globe. Indeed, Occupy Wall Street protesters around the nation being bashed by the police are not the kinds of poster children for photo opts that the government wishes to use to portray democracy.
Largely absent from the Occupy movement, however, are the staggering costs of the US empire. In 2010, $680 billion of the federal budget went to the military, with an additional $37 billion going to the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan alone. A pie chart showing the slice the military takes out the US federal budget indicates that military expenditures made up 54 percent of the budget for the fiscal year 2009. Compare the latter to 30 percent of the federal budget that went to human resources in the same year.
As I’ve fought militarism over the decades from a personal and activist perspective, I’ve seen firsthand how the nation uses the symbols of freedom and democracy to negate those same principles whenever they emerge on distant shores or right here at home. The military dictatorship in Egypt is allowed to consume its own people in the face of a democracy movement while stocks of US-made tear gas are used to subdue democracy fighters. Candidates for political office who espouse peace and an egalitarian social-economic structure at home are relegated to the status of non persons through the stranglehold that both the Democratic and the Republican Parties have on the election process! Without the support of the 1 percent that holds over 40 percent of the wealth in the US, a candidate remains an unknown and unelectable.
And the symbols that militarism uses have a great hold on the ordinary people who labor and live within the system. The flag, patriotic songs, and the glamor of military service are drummed into the psyches of children from the time they reach kindergarten age until they become adults. The cold war so easily morphed into the war on terrorism! And the consumerist ethos brings the rest of the population into the fold. Myths about the beauty of democracy at home go unquestioned even as protestors are driven from encampments in places as far flung as New York City, Philadelphia, and Oakland, California. Myths about the goodness of the nation, dubbed American Exceptionalism, fly in the face of Nicaraguan deaths during the 1980’s contra war, the hundreds of thousands lost during the twenty years of the war in Iraq with its economic sanctions (not to mention the millions of Iraqis displaced by the war), and the millions of Southeast Asians and Americans who died as a result of US intervention in the 1960s and early 1970s. Smaller military operations are not counted here.
When George Orwell wrote the classic Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949, he focused his sharp criticism on totalitarian regimes that called themselves socialist. Isn’t it somewhat ironic that his main character Winston Smith could find himself equally at home here in the US in 2011 as he was in the mythical land of Oceania. There was constant and unbridled government surveillance of the citizens in Oceania. There was constant warfare. And finally, there was total subservience to the state.
Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He blogs at howielisnoff.wordpress.com.