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People from Yemen and Pakistan and elsewhere have told me, and have testified in the U.S. Congress, that they have a hard time convincing their neighbors that everyone in the United States doesn’t hate them. There are buzzing killer robots flying over their houses night and day and every now and then blowing a bunch of people up with a missile with very little rhyme or reason that anyone nearby can decipher. They don’t know where to go or not go, what to do or not do, to be safe or keep their children safe. Their children have instinctively taken to crouching and covering their heads just like U.S. children in the 1950s were taught to do as supposed protection from Soviet nuclear weapons.
The good news is that, of course, we don’t all hate Yemenis or Pakistanis or Somalis or Afghans or Libyans or any of the other people who might suspect us of it. The bad news — and the news that I’m afraid would be almost incomprehensible to many millions of people around the world — is that most of us have only the vaguest idea where any of those countries are, some of us don’t know that they ARE countries at all, and we pay far greater attention to our sports and our pets than to whom exactly our government is killing this Tuesday.
This obliviousness comes into sharpest relief perhaps when we elect the officials who are legally called on to decide on our wars. The extent to which Congress has handed war making over to presidents is also brought out by observing Congressional elections. It is not at all uncommon for U.S. Congressional candidates’ platforms to entirely ignore all questions of war and peace, and to win support from either Democrats or Republicans despite this omission — despite, in particular, taking no position on the area funded by 57% of the dollars they will vote on if elected, namely wars and war preparations.
Here in Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District, a man named Lawrence Gaughan recently announced as a Democratic candidate for Congress. I’d never heard of him, so I took a look at the “Issues” section of hiswebsite. Not only WAS there such a section (some candidates campaign purely on their biography without taking positions on anything), but Gaughan’s site had clear forthright statements on a number of important issues. He backed labor unions despite their virtual nonexistence in his district. He admitted the existence of climate change. He backed Eisenhower era tax rates (!!). And his statements made commitments: “I will not vote for any tax cuts for those making over 250,000 dollars a year.” “I support the Dream Act.” “I would vote for any legislation that would bring back jobs in construction, manufacturing and production.” Either this guy had real principles or he was just too new for anyone to have explained to him how to make his promises vague enough not to commit himself to any specific actions.
All too typically, however, when I scrolled through the “Issues,” I noticed a gap. I sent this note off to the candidate’s staff:
“Your candidate has some of the best and clearest positions on domestic issues that I’ve seen, and dramatically superior to Congressman Hurt’s, but judging by his website as it stands today he seems to have no position on foreign policy whatsoever, or even on that 57% of discretionary spending that, according to the National Priorities Project, goes to militarism. For people who support domestic social justice AND peace in the world in this district, we are put in a bind by our history. Congressman Perriello voted for every war dollar he could, and has made a career of pushing for new wars since leaving office. Congressman Hurt is a disaster on other issues but listened to us and took a stand against missile strikes on Syria. He even listened to us on lawless imprisonment and voted against a “Defense” Authorization Act on one occasion. Helpful as it is to know what Lawrence Gaughan thinks of 43% of the budget, some of us are really going to have to know what he thinks of the larger part. Would he cut military spending? Would he oppose new wars? Does he oppose drone strikes? Would he repeal the authorization to use military force of ’01 and that of ’03? Would he support economic conversion to peaceful industries on the model now set up in Connecticut? Would he advance a foreign policy of diplomacy, cooperation, actual aid, and nonviolent conflict resolution? Are there any foreign bases he would close? Does he think having U.S. troops in 175 nations is too many, too few, or just right? Does he support joining the ICC? Thanks for your time!”
A couple of days later, Gaughan called me on the phone. We talked for a while about foreign policies, wars, peace, militarism, the economic advantages of converting to peaceful industries, the danger of handing war powers over to presidents. He said he opposed wars. He said he wanted to take on the influence of the military industrial complex. He didn’t seem particularly well informed, but he seemed to be coming from a fairly good place or to at least be willing to get there.
He proposed allowing military veterans to never pay any taxes. That’s not exactly the sort of resistance to militarism that President Kennedy had in mind when he wrote that wars would continue until the conscientious objector has the honor and prestige of the soldier. Gaughan offered no tax cuts for conscientious objectors. Still, he said he’d get some good statements on foreign policy added to his website right away. He also said he’d be willing to debate the other candidates, including the incumbent, on foreign relations, should peace groups create such a forum and invite him.
Lo and behold, the next day, this appeared on Gaughan’s website:
“We have strayed from our constitution when it comes to the defense of our nation and declaration of war. I was opposed to the war in Iraq for many reasons. The enormous price paid by our brave men and women as well as the huge financial debt that we incurred was not necessary. Republicans in Congress continue to defer those costs on our military personnel and our veterans through the sequester and other austerity measures.
“Not withstanding the government shutdown, the Republican budget proposals that my opponent, Robert Hurt, has voted for over the past three years, have forced the Pentagon into reductions that have taken a tremendous toll on enlisted personnel right here in our district. These political policies are also causing reductions to TriCare, active duty health benefits, and to retired military pensions. As the greatest nation on earth, it is unacceptable that we have homeless veterans or military families who struggle to pay the bills.
“We owe so much to the men and women who serve. Instead of laying off soldiers and cutting funding for the VA, we could begin by eliminating the ongoing fraud by military contractors. Fraud committed by dozens of irresponsible military industry corporations have cost taxpayers more than $1.1 trillion. Eliminating this fraud would offset most of the estimated $1.2 trillion in policy savings required over the next decade in order to realize the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated $1.4 trillion in deficit reduction without ‘gutting our military’. Furthermore, as a component of tax reform, there should be a tax exemption status for veterans written into the tax code.”
His topic, all too typically — people around the world should understand — is not how to relate to the 95% of humanity that is not in the United States, but how to treat “The Military.”
His first sentence echoes our discussion of the past three-quarters century of undeclared wars, but doesn’t spell it out. Will he oppose wars that lack a Congressional declaration or not?
He picks one past war to oppose without stating his position on future wars. He describes the costs of a war that killed some million Iraqis and destroyed a nation as all being paid by the U.S. and its soldiers.
He blames the sequester agreement on only one of the two parties that agreed to it, and buys into the myth that it has resulted in cuts to the military. (True, Democrats in the Senate recently put up a token effort to fund veterans’ needs and were blocked by Republicans.) Gaughan claims that we owe “so much” to members of the military who “serve.” What exactly do we owe them? Can he name something that we owe them? He doesn’t want soldiers to be “laid off,” as if employing them is a make-work jobs program.
In my view we owe veterans housing, healthcare, education, a clean environment, and a healthy society because they are human beings — and we owe it equally to every other human being. But we shouldn’t pretend that the military’s so-called “service” isn’t making us hated around the world. We shouldn’t try to produce more veterans as if there were something noble about murdering people.
Gaughan almost closes on an up note. He acknowledges fraud by military contractors. He even calls them “military,” rather than using the misleading term “defense.” But then he makes clear that he doesn’t want to cut the military. He wants to create efficiency to avoid cuts while saving money.
Would he repeal authorizations to use military force? Who knows. Would he back future wars? Who can tell? Does he believe U.S. troops should be in 175 nations? Perhaps. But if they were in 182 would he then think 182 was the right number? Does he favor allowing presidents to murder people with missiles from drones or by any other means? Does he think antagonizing Russia and China and Iran should remain the focus of U.S. foreign policy? Does he want the occupation of Afghanistan ended? Who knows.
He brought up a Department of Peace on our phone call, but it didn’t make the website yet. One can hope that Gaughan’s website is a work in progress. There’s certainly a chance he’ll become a far better candidate and Congress member than this district has had in a long time.
But this, dear world, is more or less how the world’s largest-ever killing machine operates. It turns its eyes away from the machine’s work and, if pushed, debates the care of the machine itself — maintaining more or less complete obliviousness to the horrors the machine produces in those far away places where you live and die.
David Swanson is author of War is a Lie. He lives in Virginia.