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The Demonic Suction Tube

Suddenly America’s political cauldron bubbles with hope and possibility — not just because the Democrats have won races across the country, but because voters pushed back in record numbers against the forces of Trump and racism and the long-standing lies of entrenched wealth.

Now the work begins: to hold our political leadership accountable for real change —the sort of change that is too easily ducked by the powerful. The time has come to change who we are as a nation, to transform the national identity.

Here’s a simpler way to put it: “Will the new House Democrats take on the war lobby?”

This question is the headline of an essay by Medea Benjamin and Nicolas J. S. Davies, and it touches the furious heart of who we are. I would put it this way: As long as 60 percent or so of our discretionary spending is diverted to militarism; as long as there is no official acknowledgment of the horrific and pointless hell our wars have created, with no benefits even to our “national interests”; as long as we refuse to face our own history of genocidal behavior and our addiction to “conquest” . . . we will not change, we will not grow, we will not survive.

Benjamin and Davies quote Martin Luther King’s iconic Riverside Church address in 1967, in which he notes the collapse of the country’s anti-poverty efforts: “Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.”

The demonic suction tube! Nothing much has changed in 50 years. The tube is still sucking resources and spewing fear. And it still owns the media.

Consider, for instance, the Washington Post’s failure to challenge the ominous demand for more military spending emerging from something called the National Defense Strategy Commission, a congressionally mandated commission chaired by military-industrial insiders.

“The United States has lost its military edge to a dangerous degree and could potentially lose a war against China or Russia,” the Post informs us as it moves to the commission’s main point.

“The commission said that despite a $716 billion American defense budget this year, which is four times the size of China’s and more than 10 times that of Russia, the effort to reshape the U.S. defense establishment to counter current threats is under-resourced. It recommended that Congress lift budget caps on defense spending in the next two years that in the past have hobbled the military’s ability to plan for the long term.”

The emergency here is the risk of “a further erosion of American military dominance” at a time when “China and Russia are seeking dominance in their regions and the ability to project military power globally, as their authoritarian governments pursue defense buildups aimed squarely at the United States.”

The limited, dominance-addicted thought process at work here is terrifying once you notice it. The commission, unchallenged in the Post story, is calling for an increase in the already bloated, out-of-control defense budget that could mean, according to William Hartung’s analysis in The Nation, “an annual Pentagon budget of an astonishing $972 billion by 2024.”

This is psychological. This is insane. This is what Philip Zimbardo has called “the Lucifer Effect”: the corruption of consciousness caused by having overwhelming power over others. Zimbardo famously conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, creating a simulated prison environment in which some college-student volunteers acted as guards and others acted as prisoners. The experiment had to be called off after five days, well ahead of schedule, because the abuse of power had gotten so seriously out of hand. The “prisoners” started having emotional breakdowns, the situation had deteriorated so badly.

Turns out that global defense strategizing, if you are the world’s greatest military power, may have the same effect on the human beings designated as “the guards,” protecting America’s borders and its interests, including with nuclear weapons. This is the point, at any rate, that Daniel Ellsberg makes in his book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner: When you’re caught up in this this sort of thinking, you lose a human perspective and are able to imagine waging — indeed, “winning” — a nuclear war. And of course the military budget you have to play with will never be adequate.

Here’s the Post again: “The picture of the national security landscape that the 12-person commission sketched is a bleak one, in which an American military that has enjoyed undisputed dominance for decades is failing to receive the resources, innovation and prioritization its leaders need to outmuscle China and Russia in a race for military might reminiscent of the Cold War.”

This is America! Do we have politicians who can stand up to this? Why is military spending and the waging of war the one topic that is verboten in national discourse, even when progressive politicians are doing the speaking? Bernie Sanders, for instance, in a recent article (also in the Washington Post), laid out an extensive progressive agenda that included Medicare for all, debt-free college tuition, immigration reform, raising the minimum wage and much more . . . with zero mention of military spending, our demonic suction tube.

Apparently you can’t get too close to the national governmental structure without surrendering all opposition to — all awareness of — Lucifer’s control over foreign policy.

Hartung writes: “We should be spending less time figuring out how to fight wars with Russia, China, Iran, or any other nation, and more on how to forge partnerships to address the biggest challenges to continued life on this planet: climate change and nuclear weapons. But the new report is silent on the first problem, while on the second, it has not one discouraging word for the Pentagon’s dangerous, counterproductive plan to spend $1.2 trillion on a new generation of nuclear weapons over the next three decades.”

Despite the hope and possibility bubbling from the big Dem midterm wins, transformative change — challenging the war lobby — will not happen today or tomorrow or anytime soon, and certainly not without serious public pressure. Benjamin and Davies suggest one place to start: signing a petition calling on “all Democrats who aspire to chair Congressional committees in the new Congress to return campaign contributions from the arms industry and stop accepting them from now on.”

Let’s jam the suction tube.

More articles by:

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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