Notes on Empire and Spiritual Death: a Recent Episode

As prophesized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. just shy of 50 years ago, the United States has become a spiritually dead imperialist atrocity.

Look at the recent media discussion of pre-fascist U.S. president Donald Trump’s use of the distressed widow of a US Navy Seal as a nationalist war prop in his de facto first State of the Union Address to Congress last Tuesday night.

The widow’s husband, Ryan Owens, was a highly trained and skilled killer working in the service of an American Empire that accounts for nearly 40 percent of the world’s military spending and maintains more than 800 bases across more than 80 sovereign nations.

The Pentagon System that pays for that empire eats up well more than half the nation’s federal discretionary spending.  That’s no small part of why “the world’s richest” nation lags most other rich nations on basic measures of social and physical health – life expectancy, infant mortality, health care affordability and access, poverty, education, equality, social mobility, drug addiction, violence, suicide and the like.

The Pentagon regime is a great subsidy for the rich owners of a vast high-tech “defense” contractor network and thereby furthers economic disparity in a nation already so savagely unequal that the top tenth of the upper U.S. 1 Percent owns more wealth than the nation’s bottom 90 Percent.

In “defense” of inequality both within and between nations around the world, the U.S. global war, “intelligence,” and empire machine has toppled dozens of governments and killed many millions of people (with Indochinese and Iraqis in the lead when it comes to direct U.S. murders) since the end of World War II.

Every U.S. president since at least Harry Truman has been a full-on war criminal (a strong case could be made for many of his predecessors). The criminality involved is epic almost beyond words, from Hiroshima and (even more senseless) Nagasaki through the U.S. “crucifixion [in Noam Chomsky’s words] of Southeast Asia” (some estimates of the Indochinese death toll go as high as 5 million), the “Highway of Death” (when U.S. fighter jets created an “aerial traffic jam” rushing to slaughter thousands of surrendered Iraqi troops leaving Kuwait in 1991),  the 2003 invasion of Iraq (which led to the premature death of well more than a million), and Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama’s drone war, which Noam Chomsky has rightly called “the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern times.”

“We Have to Start Winning Wars Again”

The orange-haired, Twitter-addicted beast who today celebrates his 42nd day in the White House says he wants to boost the Pentagon budget by 10 percent – by an extraordinary $54.6 billion.  He would pay for that – and for the giant tax cuts he wants to give his wealthy friends and the nation’s corporations –  with massive cuts in domestic social programs. As Herr Trump childishly explained to a meeting of U.S. Governors last Monday, “We have to start winning wars again…We never win,” said the new commander-in-chief, who stands atop a giant nuclear stockpile (the United States owns more than 5100 nuclear warheads) with the capacity to blow the world up many times over. “When I was young, in high school and in college,” the Vietnam era draft dodger Trump added, “everybody used to say we never lost a war. America never lost. Now, we never win a war.”

Talking in such a flippantly juvenile fashion about “wars” and the nation’s need to “win” them – this without even referring to any purportedly legitimate war aims in the nuclear era – is quite extraordinary.

“A Highly Successful Raid” That Wasn’t Trump’s Fault

The Insane Clown President drew his first imperial blood with a Navy Seals commando raid in Yemen on his ninth day in office. The plan for the raid, meant to target an Al Qaeda leader (who wasn’t there when the attack went down), was pitched to Trump while he dined.  Pentagon officials “told Trump that they doubted that the Obama administration would have been bold enough to try it” (NBC News).  That was probably all it took for the new War-Criminal-in-Chief to sign off on the murder plot while eating dinner.

Things didn’t go off as planned, as sometimes happens with complex killing operations in distant, mountainous parts of the world. As Washington Post opinion blogger Paul Waldman writes, “The militants knew they were coming, possibly tipped off by the increased sound of drones in the area. The team encountered stronger resistance than it expected. A couple of dozen civilians were killed (we don’t know exactly how many, but it could be as many as 30), including children, among them an 8-year-old American girl. Owens was killed. A $75 million Osprey aircraft was damaged in a ‘hard landing’ and had to be destroyed lest it fall into AQAP’s hands.”

Last Tuesday night, Trump exploited Ryan Owens’ widow as a stage-prop for his call to boost the Pentagon budget – and his efforts to look presidential.  He prompted the Congress and the crowd in Capital Hill’s House Chamber stand and give her a prolonged (Trump called is record-setting in length) ovation in the memory of her husband.  The widow wept as Trump said:

“We are blessed to be joined tonight by Carryn Owens, the widow of U.S. Navy Special Operator, Senior Chief William ‘Ryan’ Owens. Ryan died as he lived: a warrior, and a hero — battling against terrorism and securing our nation. I just spoke to our great Gen. Mattis, just now, who reconfirmed that, and I quote, ‘Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.’ Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity. Thank you.”

It was a nauseating performance, with hundreds of elected representatives from both parties cheering while the president called a hastily approved mass-murder that killed as many as 30 civilians, including an 8 year-old-girl, “a highly successful raid.”

Earlier in the same day, curiously enough, Trump had gone on “Fox and Friends” to distance himself from the Yemen raid.  He blamed it on the Obama administration and the military, saying “This was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something they wanted to do,” he said. “They came to see me, they explained what they wanted to do ― the generals ― who are very respected, my generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan.”

If the operation was such a grand triumph why did Trump pass the buck for it earlier in the same day?  The cynicism of it all is almost beyond belief.

Man Ho Van Jones Speaks: “He Became President of the United States”

Equally if not more repulsive was the willingness of cable news talking heads and media pundits to shower praise on Trump’s manipulative war widow stunt, which Goebbels would have applauded. The Washington Times called Trump’s trick a “most riveting piece of political theater” and wrote that “the president’s critics and supporters alike admired it.” CNN anchor (and former CIA intern) Anderson Cooper said “It was without a doubt one of the most kind of emotional moments we have seen in a political speech like this in quite some time,” said Anderson Cooper.

And then there was this disturbing piece of presidential fellation from the noxious moral snail Van Jones, the onetime “left” green jobs advocate, also speaking on that noted Trump target CNN: “That was one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics, period…. [the thin-skinned megalomaniac in the White House] did something tonight that you cannot take away from him. He became president of the United States.”

Wow, Van the Man Ho: call off the demands for impeachment.  We the People can’t take the presidency away from the 70-year old fascistic toddler and sexual predator in the Oval Office now!

“Imagine if Hillary Clinton Were President”

Paul Waldman and other liberal critics were less impressed.  As Waldman noted in a widely-read critique, the Republican Congress and right-wing noise machine would be calling for her head if a President Hillary Clinton had ordered the “botched” January 29th Yemen raid and then tried to evade responsibility by blaming the previous administration and the Pentagon for it:

“…imagine if Hillary Clinton were president, had ordered an operation that went terribly wrong, and then tried to blame it on the military. Republicans would have absolutely lost their minds with rage, and they would have been right. When you’re president, you don’t get to send American servicemembers into harm’s way in an operation you obviously didn’t understand, and then when it all goes wrong and one of those servicemembers is killed, claim that it was somebody else’s fault.”

Unworthy Victims

Waldman is right about that. But tell me, fellow world citizen, do you notice anything wrong with the passage I just quoted? I am referring to Waldman’s definition of what “all” went “wrong.”  For him and everyone else that matters in “our” morally lifeless imperial culture, the screw-up is that a member of the United States’ supposedly virtuous and noble, anti-terrorist military got killed (there’s also loss of a $75 million killing machine, but even brutes like Trump know not to cry over that in public).  What about the 30 or so innocent civilians our supposed heroes and protectors butchered, including the 8-year old girl they shot in the neck, causing her to suffer for two hours before dying? (Not just any 8-year old girl, by the way.  She is the daughter of the U.S.-born Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Her father and older brother were previously killed in separate targeted assassination drone attacks ordered by Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama, who quipped to White House aides that he’d turned out to be “pretty good at killing people”).

A correspondent wrote me yesterday to say that “this particular victim was American and that’s why some are condemning it. Not because it is inherently evil and we’re bombing half the planet.” It’s a decent point, but I would add that establishment liberals are much less reluctant to criticize imperialist murder when it is committed by a Republican president than they are when the perpetrator is a Democratic one. As Glenn Greenwald notes (see my last hyperlink), “just weeks after he won the Nobel Prize, Obama used cluster bombs that killed 35 Yemeni women and children.” That terrible mass murder elicited little if any condemnation in the establishment press.

Good Amerikanners have been trained not to give a flying fuck about the mass of nameless and mostly nonwhite civilians “our great military” butchers around the world.  The unfortunate casualties of the “indispensable nation’s” grand imperial benevolence on the peripheries of the Empire are what Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s famously designated “unworthy victims.” They don’t register in the American conscience. That’s part of our spiritual death. I think it goes back to the original Indian-killing days of the settler empire in North America.

But it’s not just an American thing. “The nationalist,” George Orwell wrote in 1945, “not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.” (Thank you to Michael Riel Maldove for reminding me of that sentence).

The civilians killed in Yemen by Trump don’t qualify for serious concern and mourning in the U.S. and the broader West. Whichever major party (“two wings of the same bird of prey” in Upton Sinclair’s words 113 years ago) and whatever sort of political actor (slick Ivy League law school graduates like Bill Clinton [Yale Law] and Barack Obama [Harvard Law] or brutish clods like George W. Bush and Donald Trump) holds the White House and/or Congress, those “collateral damage” dead are mere “bug-splat” (an actual Pentagon term for civilian casualties in the invasion of Iraq) on the windows of the great rolling American liberty Humvee of endless planetary death and destruction. Properly socialized and indoctrinated U.S. journalists and commentators can’t or won’t see or care enough about these officially undeserving dead and injured humans to include them in their understanding of what’s wrong with the United States’ unmentionably criminal and mass-murderous foreign policy. That might keep their paychecks coming salaries intact but it makes them agents of America’s ongoing spiritual self-destruction.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).