The United States is a military empire that was built and is maintained by organized violence.
The origins of this country lie with the military conquest and either destruction or forced resettlement of indigenous people. Today, the modern American lifestyle is maintained, as Thomas Freidman (someone with whom I agree on very little) writes, by the “hidden fist” of the military.
“McDonalds cannot flourish without MacDonald Douglass,” Friedman wrote. “And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.”
I am reminded of this fact every August. August brings Seafair to Seattle, and with Seafair comes the Blue Angels, a Navy/Marines squadron of F/A-18 fighter bombers that travels the US each year, entertaining the public for an annual cost of $37 million.
As these jet aircraft roar overhead, I cover my ears and wince at the spectacle of widespread public adulation. These war machines are worshipped. Earlier today, I watched a five-year-old boy cheering and yelling “yee-haw” as the fighter formation shot overhead. Out on Lake Washington, a toxified remnant of what was once an ecological paradise, other Seattle residents on boats and rafts raised their hands towards the jets in supplication. As five aircraft passed directly overhead, I watched one white American man hold a can of beer above his face and pour the liquid directly down his throat.
For thousands of people, the roar of an F/A-18 fighter bomber is the last sound they ever heard. The F/A-18 aircraft played a major role during the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Between these two conflicts, more than a million civilians were killed—many of them in bombings. The same jet continues to be used in Syria, in Yemen, in Somalia, and elsewhere all around the world.
The US military uses its power to promote and protect a certain vision of prosperity and societal development. In 1948, George Kennan, then the Director of Policy Planning for the US State Department, wrote in Memo PPS23 that “[The United States has] about 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population… Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships, which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity…”
In the 70 years since Kennan wrote that memo, that “pattern of relationships” has been successfully devised and maintained. The US military is the largest in the world by expenditure, with more than $600 billion in annual funding and more than 2 million personnel (including reservists).
The true costs of this are incalculable. They range from the ecocidal, genocidal destruction of Vietnam and Cambodia to the horrors of Gulf War Syndrome to the toxic remnants of weapons manufactories in cities across the country. In Guatemala and El Salvador, the legacy of US-sponsored right-wing terrorism still echoes through a shattered society. In Nevada and across oceania, indigenous lands remain irradiated from decades of weapons testing, and nuclear waste which continues to leak into groundwater and seep into soils will remain deadly for hundreds of thousands of years.
As Friedman reminds us, military might and corporate power remain inextricably linked in creating consumer culture. We are reminded of this at Seafair, where sponsors include 76, Boeing, Starbucks, Amazon, Uber, Oracle, Microsoft, LG, Samsung, CapitalOne, and many others.
Each F/A-18 costs about $29 million, and is produced by Boeing, the second-largest weapons manufacturer in the world, one of the 100 largest companies in the world, with just under $100 billion in annual revenue. Seattle still fawns over Boeing, which brought so much wealth to this region, just as it now fawns over Amazon and Microsoft. Their digital products colonize our minds, just as Boeing’s weapons help control territory.
Seafair also includes public tours of two warships, the USS Momsen (an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer equipped with 96 missiles) and the USS Somerset (a $2 billion troop transport ship equipped to carry 600+ soldiers and vehicles into combat zones). As thousands of people file through the ships, exclaiming over the might of the empire, we must remember that the US military is also the single largest polluter in the world, responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than any other single entity.
Some people think that because I critique the US military and US empire, I must support this nation’s opponents. This logic is absurd. The Taliban and ISIS, the Nazi regime, the Stalinist Soviet state; US enemies have included countless reprehensible regimes. Repression must be fought, but this nation always has ulterior motives hidden behind humanitarian rhetoric. In the games of empire, the people and the planet are being sacrificed.
Our enemy is empire itself.
But despite my opposition to imperialist wars, I’m not a pacifist. A friend of mine, Vince Emanuele, served in the Marine Corps during the invasion of Iraq. He became disillusioned with the military, left the service, and became a leading voice of dissent against the war.
In the wake of one of the latest calls for mass regulation of firearms, he wrote:
“Sure, I’ll give up my guns, as soon as the NSA, CIA, FBI, DEA, ATF, police, military, and right-wing militias disarm themselves. Until then, my liberal, progressive, and “leftist” friends can eat tofu, watch MSNBC/Bill Moyers, and go fly a kite. Your collective commentary is akin to the “privileged white-classes” that you so often rail against.
Believe me, I’d love to live in a world without guns, violence, and so forth. But, I’m not naive enough to believe these things are going away anytime soon. This nation is extremely sick, twisted, undereducated, and plagued with an exploding prison population, growing inequality, and ever-expanding military empire and surveillance state. We should be expecting much more violence in the future, not less.
Clearly, within the context of rapid climate change, growing social ills, and a collapsing economic system, giving up your weaponry seems a bit insane and utterly naive. Interestingly, it’s the liberals and progressives, who’ve largely grown up in cosmopolitan/suburban areas, who sound like the spoiled little American brats we so often challenge.
If you’ve never carried, fired, cleaned, taken apart, or counted on a weapon to save your life, I suggest taking a more humble approach to this issue. Conversely, if you’ve only fired your daddy’s handgun, shotgun, and rifle in the backyard, I suggest scaling back the glorification of weapons and violence.
If I thought killing and warfare were fun, I would have stayed in the military–but I didn’t. If I though weapons were unnecessary, I wouldn’t own any–but I do.”
Perhaps it’s time for a people’s army—a left-wing guerrilla force, grounded in feminism, anti-racism, and respect for human rights—to fight back against the imperialist empire, to bring the fight home and make CEOs and corporations and right-wing neofascists afraid again.
Max Wilbert is a third-generation organizer who grew up in Seattle’s post-WTO anti-globalization and undoing racism movement. His first book, a collection of pro-feminist and environmental essays, was recently released. He is co-author of the forthcoming “Bright Green Lies,” which looks at the problems with solar panels, electric cars, recycling, and green cities.