The Great Communicator, Vietnam Syndrome and Another Mass Atrocity

Photo by betancourt | CC BY 2.0

Empire equals militarism. In order to maintain an empire, a nation must make either threats of violence or violence to bear to bring outliers into the fold. Both forms of violence are banned by international law and the United Nations Charter, but almost no one pays attention to such niceties of law these days. Domestically, outliers are reined in through the same process. In the twentieth century, the U.S. took on the mantle of empire and “status” as the world’s superpower from England. It was after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, that the U.S. assumed sole status as the world’s only superpower.

But there was a time, in the recent past, when unilateral military action, or military action in concert with U.S. sycophants, could still be challenged. Empire was not an absolute. That all changed after September 11, 2001, and has pretty much remained the same for the 16 years that have followed. The U.S. can now murder its own citizens without due process of law in military operations. For minority communities here in the U.S., there is a parallel of violence with police often outfitted as the military is in theaters of war. Civilians in war zones are killed as collateral damage and no human rights tribunal is called in to pass judgment. Trillions of dollars are made by the military-industrial complex and basic human rights such as the right to decent housing, medical care, and adequate education have all come under constant attack by the far right, with the main opposition party tinkering around the edges of policies that provide for the well-being of people. The duopoly essentially is on the same page.

Ronald Reagan, “The Great Communicator” and “teflon president,” who had called for a bloodbath to stem student antiwar protest in the 1960s and had begun the long march to decimate unions when he fired all air traffic controllers at the beginning of his first term, actually was held accountable in the court of public opinion for the Iran-Contra Affair that took place in the second half of the decade of the 1980s. Now presidents can violate the laws of war with abandon and holding them accountable is absolutely off of the table, so to speak. Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama said as much when they controlled both the White House and the Congress. After all, they could expect the very same treatment once they were out of office.

The history of Iran-Contra is easy to follow. Reagan needed small wars, so-called “low intensity” wars such as in Granada, Nicaragua, and El Salvador to beat back what was labeled as the Vietnam Syndrome. I know a bit about the “syndrome”  because the government  labeled me with it for my resistance to the Vietnam War. But the strange thing is that a sizable part of U.S. society also had the syndrome. And it wasn’t like an affliction or flu epidemic when a person could go to a medical provider and either get treated for it, or inoculated against it with an anti-viral medicine. Vietnam Syndrome simply meant that both individuals and significant parts of this nation were hesitant to support military adventures abroad after the debacle of the millions left dead and wounded from U.S.-led military actions in Southeast Asia in the 1940s through 1975.

The Great Communicator needed unbridled latitude in defeating the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Reagan was a communist hater from way back. As president of the Screen Actors Guild, he had been more than willing to name names in Hollywood during the shameful McCarthy era of the late 1940s and early1950s. So, it’s easy to understand how he could later condemn the free speech movement at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s while he was governor. How far of a leap of logic is it from condemning free speech on a college campus to calling for a bloodbath to take care of those dissenting students during the Vietnam War? And then he went looking for small wars to fight.

The Boland Amendment had been passed by Congress to stop the funding of the Contras, the anti-Sandinista forces that had been causing bloody mayhem throughout Nicaragua during the 1980s. The Contras were nothing more than soldiers for hire (“The moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers” according to Reagan), and they often used Honduras as a staging area for their lethal attacks against the government and people of Nicaragua.

El Salvador was a “playground” for U.S.-backed death squads at about the same time the rape of Nicaragua took place under Reagan.

True to form, the Reagan administration wanted a way around the amendment, so it used Israel as a shill in order to ship arms to Iran, get a group of U.S. hostages out of Lebanon, contrary to U.S. policy of not bargaining with hostage takers, and use the funds generated by the arms sales to fund the Contras. Israel would be resupplied for the weapons that it transferred to Iran as part of the deal. This was all clandestine stuff until the affair broke wide open and heads began to figuratively roll.

Reagan’s wars were low-intensity operations that would later morph into endless wars, first under George H.W. Bush, then under George Bush, and would become business as usual during the administration (Bill Clinton was somewhat more restrained) of Barack Obama, and now The Grand Militarist-in-Chief, Donald Trump, who most likely does not even know some of the geographical locations or countries where the U.S. is now at war or has a military presence. Recently, he noted of hurricane-battered Puerto Rico: “This is an island surrounded by water, big water, ocean water.”

Why should readers be surprised by the awful consequences from the political system that we now face? Ronald Reagan traveled to Bitburg, Germany in May 1985 to lay a wreath at a cemetery where Nazi soldiers from World War II are buried. That’s part of the system of which we are a part.

Michael Moore, on Democracy Now (“Michael Moore on His Broadway Show, Trump, Puerto Rico, NFL & Media Support for War” September 29, 2017), says this about the prospects of Trump taking the nation to war and what reaction there needs to be in the streets:

If Trump says that North Korea suddenly is the enemy, and we have to—do not believe this. Do not go to war. Unless you see North Korean troops marching through that arch down in Washington Square Park, or if a friend calls you from the vegan section at Chelsea Market and says, “There are North Koreans marching down the aisle grabbing all the vegan food,” OK, then maybe—maybe. But still, question it. Question it. Do not follow along with the liberal New York Times, with the liberal commentators—the so-called liberal—the Democrats in the Senate who won’t stand up.

In terms of being a long-distance runner, Moore was at the cemetery in Bitburg in 1985, along with a relative of Holocaust victims, and protested against Reagan’s presence there.

Osama bin Ladin bears some of the blame for the endless wars and endless war spending that now robs money from the basic needs of people both here and around the world, but it was Iran-Contra that finally took the gloves off of the military-industrial complex and let unbridled militarism become the way the U.S. government operated. Now, after a long slide, the Department of State is a weak appendage of the government, and its last diplomatic achievement, the Iran nuclear arms agreement, is threatened every day. Not much money can be made through diplomacy, but there are trillions of dollars to be made in the preparation of wars and by actual wars and lots of power to be spread around, and something as quaint as Vietnam Syndrome can be buried deep in the dustbin of history.

The melding of corporate-government-military power spells the end of republican democracy and the beginning of a neofascistic regime. How far along that road to neofascism we are is a guess, at best. We could be one national or international incident or emergency, real or manufactured, away from such a nation. That Trump feels free to attack black athletes and others who dare to kneel in opposition to the regime of police brutality and racism in the U.S., is but one expression of a society that has lost any semblance of decency and fair play.

Reagan, incidentally, left office as one of the most well-regarded presidents in history. Hardly anyone recalls that he worked assiduously to make ketchup a vegetable choice in school lunches, while beginning the debacle that brought the likes of Betsy DeVos to the Department of Education with frontal attacks against public schools, students, and their teachers. It’s all connected if enough attention is paid. Just like the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz, all these actors needed was to bide their time to destroy this nation and possibly the rest of the world along with it.

On the domestic front, and the connections here to unending wars can’t be missed, the mass and individual insanity of guns and rifles (19 rifles at last count) and primarily male-driven violence put Stephen Paddock, a Nevada resident, high above a country music venue in Las Vegas where he opened fire with what appears to have been a rifle or rifles modified to fire like a machine gun. He was described as basically “a normal man” (“Stephen Paddock, Las Vegas Suspect, Was a Gambler Who Drew Little Attention,” New York Times, October 2, 2017). How long will the silence of the NRA last this time in the face of this atrocity?

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).