From Our Sister’s-Brother’s Keepers to Military Triumphalism

A military helicopter flies over the rural farm fields of a small town in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts. Three military transport planes fly in formation over the Pioneer Valley just under 50 miles away, close to the former manufacturing city of Springfield, known for its production of rifles, motorcycles, and in history, site of a famous battle of Shays’ Rebellion at the Springfield Armory. Sophisticated fighter jets fly in and out of a nearby airport. The Ukraine flag flies just below the US flag at one corner of Great Barrington, the same rural Massachusetts town where the helicopter flew earlier in the day.

Over the past several years, telephone poles throughout the area have featured banners with pictures of veterans, their branch of the military, and the time or war during which they were in the military. At the edge of a bucolic rail trail in the Hudson Valley of New York is a lone example of one such cloth banner, this particular banner showing an unnamed doughboy from World War I with the words: “Hudson Farming Community.” There were about 40 million combined civilian and military deaths during World War I. What would be the result if communities placed banners showing their favorite sons and daughters from the arts, sciences, public service, and similar human endeavors along with veterans?

Joe Biden, the new and old cold warrior, claims the US would defend (New York Times, May 23, 2022) Taiwan if it was invaded by China. People, especially those from the working class, reel from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic while the Biden administration pours billions—54 billion—of dollars into Ukraine in a dramatic example of guns v. butter (New York Times, May 20, 2022). Only some Republicans in Congress voted against that spending, and the now-famous Squad of so-called liberal progressives in the House voted unanimously for that military spending while programs of social uplift die.

The anticipated US military budget for 2022 is $773 billion, which does not take into account the massive additional spending on the war in Ukraine. “Since the start of the war in Afghanistan, Pentagon spending has totaled over $14 trillion, one-third to one-half of which went to defense contractors” (Watson Institute, September 13, 2021).

Even a casual observer does not have to have the insight of a pharaoh to read the writing on the wall. The US has become the belligerent among belligerents in a world bristling with weapons of mass destruction, of which only two have been used in history against Japan near the end of World War II. The public in the US seems overwhelmingly in favor of pouring lethal weapons into Ukraine to counter the Russian invasion there. It might appear strange that after decades of war in places where the US has intervened, either directly or as a proxy, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and now Ukraine, that there is no hesitancy on the part of the public to fund and rally behind such military enterprises even under the shadow of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which has caused mayhem, a massive number of deaths (well over 1 million), and economic and social disruption.

The prospect of nuclear confrontation does not even enter into public discourse, because there is no discourse.

Pushback against wars and the preparations for war has been almost absent since the 2003 invasion of the US into Iraq, when protest had some measure of influence and power. The antiwar political left here vanished for all intents and purposes during the Obama administration, and there was almost no antiwar movement against a US surge of troops in Afghanistan (Foreign Policy, September 25, 2012).

The question that begs asking now is what the hell happened to the antiwar movement once so vibrant, especially during the Vietnam War?  First, without skin in the game, those who once had ideals of a post-Cold War world have gone on to other interests and particularly into careers. Second, the 2001 attacks against the US set up a different line of reasoning where military might no longer was challenged in any meaningful way: Military actions and military spending were met largely with a shrug by a mass of people in the US. Finally, many who do stand for worthy causes tend to see those causes, and those causes only, as in their interest. There is almost no attention paid to other interests. Again, it’s only self-interest that matters.

The latter, was absent from the high point of the antiwar movement in the 1960s and early 1970s, when antiwar protesters, feminists, those fighting for gay rights, those in the civil rights movement, and people who saw early threats to  the environment actually communicating and acting in solidarity with one another. The natural affinity of some people across all, or many of these movements, was natural. The best example of this was Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr’s connection between the civil rights and antiwar movements, with an eye toward a critique of the superficiality of a consumerist society. King brought the idea of agape, or love of the other, a concept from ancient Greek civilization into the battle for civil rights in the US. This love of the other was devoid of any romantic notions about humanity, but rather was the simple regard for the other. Some may find the idea of agape, or unconditional love, naive; others may find the concept one piece to the puzzle of human survival.

In a matter of just a few, short generations, masses of people have gone from being their brother’s and sister’s keepers to being in it for themselves alone. Millions of people in a nation of immigrants have gone over to a loathing of immigrants as the enemy, and the existential enemies of hate, militarism, and environmental destruction are all around.

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