War is as Popular as Cherry and Apple Pie

Small bands of protesters, or no antiwar protesters are like poison to a war resister. When the recent New York Times obituary of Dr. Willard Gaylin appeared, there was absolutely no mention of his landmark work (War Resisters in Prison, 1970) with war resisters during the Vietnam War. Singer-songwriters who wrote anthems to antiwar protest go silent about today’s wars or nearly choke on questions about the meaning of an old song measured against today’s endless wars. Banners hung from telephone polls in communities depicting soldiers from past wars also tell part of the story of militarism. Where are the banners hoisted to teachers, social workers, and the average Jane or Joe trying to survive through hard work? The death threats against protesters who assembled in front of the federal building in Providence, Rhode Island at the start of the war in Afghanistan in 2001 are yet another reminder, as were the nightly segments on local news programs about soldiers who had died since the beginning of that war. Tributes to those who died in war is not negative, but measured against power structures in the US that refused to accept the Taliban’s offer to turn Bin Laden over to the US, casts the entire war in a different light. The composition of the forces that answered the 2001 attacks was the subject of much debate regarding its socio-economic nature. No historical context for the US role in Afghanistan was ever presented in the mass media.

The disappearance of antiwar protest during Barack Obama’s so-called troop surge in Afghanistan is yet another of the endless reminders of unbridled militarism. The list is endless, but points to the mass acceptance of war and the preparations for war, a phenomenon that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke eloquently about in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside Church in 1967. Recall what the late historian Howard Zinn said about Barack Obama and militarism: “I wish President Obama would listen carefully to Martin Luther King.” It is all familiar and war has become normalized with the trillion dollar outlays for war in the Biden administration and the disappearance of criticisms of war in the mass media about the war in Ukraine.

Occasionally, even in the atmosphere of near-total acceptance of war in the US and much of the larger world, an article will appear that strikes like lightning in the Orwellian atmosphere of war’s acceptance. Such is “The Trillion Dollar Silencer,” (CovertAction Magazine, January 6, 2023). The article is like an epiphany, or to borrow from a line about a different theme from Bob Dylan: “Everyone of those words rang true…”

CovertAction’s article highlights the new book, Joan Roelofs’ The Trillion Dollar Silencer: Why There Is So Little Anti-War Protest in the United States (2022). The major ideas set forth in this groundbreaking work need to be considered by anyone who has, or does, take part in antiwar protest.

The power of the military-industrial complex has become a “highly effective silencer.” This is precisely what President Dwight Eisenhower warned about in his farewell address in 1961, although his two terms in office saw the explosion of the work of the military-industrial complex in threatening the peace and existence of our world. Nuclear arms proliferated and the myth of Soviet nuclear superiority began.

Military bases are strewn across the landscape of the US and “often in remote rural areas.” The effects of a base in the deindustrialized US are obvious in terms of economics. The environmental impact of unending consumption meets the endless production of military hardware and software, a part of the economy that does not address masses of people who live in gutted and rusted former industrialized areas, or the human needs of those people. Producing efficient electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines, etc., would be a far more productive and intelligent use of resources than so-called defense production of the weapons of war. The weapons of war, once produced, beg to be used.

My home state, Rhode Island, is an example of the limits of war spending. The Electric Boat division of General Dynamics has a production facility there, and that same company has a production facility in nearby Connecticut. Rhode Island’s economy has never got off the ground successfully despite that employer’s production facilities and the doomsday Trident submarine is a major focus of that company’s production. One Trident submarine with multiple hydrogen bombs could precipitate the end of the world!

The money from military spending goes to many places. Scores of philanthropic and educational enterprises are subsidized by military spending and a river of money goes to congressmen and women. One recipient of war industry funding is the Boy Scouts. Even as far back as the late 1950s and early 1960s, the scout troop I belonged to visited an aircraft carrier near where Electric Boat is located today in Rhode Island and we also visited a local short-range missile base. The thrust here of indoctrination is apparent. The recent rescinding of an appeal from a few congressmen and women to Biden to reconsider the US role in the Ukraine war is an example of the tentacles of influence of the military-industrial complex in that anemic show of criticism of that war and the US role in it. Quickly rescinded, it would have been portrayed as an insufficient show of patriotism. Billions of dollars in armaments mean more money for war contractors and more money for investments in war. It’s an endless cycle.

That the military would “invade” college and university campuses as it does today with the influence of money would have been somewhat foreign to a student of the 1960s, but there was plenty of military presence on campuses even then. Today it is invasive.

Since the 1960s, [the] military industry has made huge inroads on college campuses by subsidizing national security institutes and business and engineering and even social work schools and grants for research and funding to train the next generation of weapons-producers.

The Human Terrain System program in 2007 harked back to the Cold War-era U.S. Army Project Camelot in employing social scientists to obtain anthropologic and ethnographic data in Iraq and Afghanistan to assist in U.S. counterinsurgency operations.

Presidents of major universities have increasingly come from a military or CIA background. (CovertAction Magazine)

Antiwar protest has been part of US society since before the Civil War. Henry Thoreau spent a night in jail in Massachusetts for his refusal to pay taxes for war during the Mexican-American War. The Civil War saw draft riots, much of that protest driven by racism, however. Woodrow Wilson imposed draconian controls on the freedom of expression to limit antiwar protest during World War I, which didn’t make the world “safe for democracy” and led in a straight line to World War II. Wilson deported those he could and jailed others. Making the world “safe for democracy” seemed to be a value that Wilson wanted everywhere but in the US. Franklin Roosevelt went to great pains to get the US ready for war and the America First movement, with its hideous anti-Semitism, was focused on keeping the US out of the war, but the reasons for its leadership’s aversion to war were mired in hypocrisy and littered with hate. There were conscientious objectors during World War II. The next, and most massive antiwar campaign took place during the Vietnam War in which well over a million men and women took part in different kinds of resistance, largely making the conduct of that war difficult.

While antiwar protest has moved in fits and starts since the Vietnam War protest movement, protest almost disappeared during the beginning of the so-called War on Terror, but rose during the latest Iraq War, which began in 2003, which was and is a preemptive war. Antiwar protest has mostly died since then with only sporadic and atomized rebellion. The largest decline took place during Barack Obama’s presidency, not an unusual occurrence with the general misconception being that Democrats are supporters of peace.

The greatest putsch against antiwar protest is the most recent, with the drumbeat of pro-war propaganda in the mass media casting the illegal preemptive Ukraine war as a noble cause/noble war and no alternative views allowed in that media in a frenzy of self-censorship. Any attempt to discuss that war is met with either disdain or dismissal of antiwar voices banned by the mass media. Commentary that doesn’t vilify Vladimir Putin as a “Hitler” will not see the light of day in the mass media. Discussions about the role of NATO’s expansion on Russia’s border are forbidden. The Damocles’ Sword of the Ukraine war as a potential trigger of nuclear war is dismissed or not allowed.

These are “great” days for investment in the war industry and war! With “military Keynesianism” keeping the gears of military production and propaganda well greased, there was no surprise that MIT physicist Vera Kistiakowsky once wrote that “Pentagon funding of university research has no benefits” (CovertAction Magazine). Former centers of the industrial economy have been gutted throughout the US leaving resentment and poverty in its place through “military Keynesianism.”

A neoliberal line of reasoning in opposition to unlimited military spending is that our better angels have made the world a less violent place. With about 750 US military bases around the world (2021) this is not exactly any kind of better angel with which most who suffer the ravages of war are acquainted. The US alone spends more on the military than the next 10 countries combined. The neoliberals would never fund medical care for all, schools where kids and young adults learn from competent teachers, housing instead of real estate and mortgage debacles, and healthful food that is readily available. These are pipe dreams to the neoliberals and the right-wing and undesirable to their paymasters. In the US, we have a kind of so-called “free-market” capitalism that gives the wealthy, some of the working class, and some in the middle class the absolute right to sleep under bridges or live in dilapidated homes.

The only sources for reliable news and information on issues of war and peace are now the alternative media. Silence reigns supreme elsewhere. Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he observed in 1967 that the US was “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world: My own government, I can not be Silent.” (“Beyond Vietnam”). Not much has changed since then. Some suggest that the Reverend King paid with his life for his critique of the Vietnam War.

The US lost its soul in Vietnam amid mass atrocities against civilians, hundreds of which the US government refused to investigate. Its soul was buried in the inaction to the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Hyper militarism, ultranationalism, and right-wing populism are all fueled by the politics of hate and resentment and violence. The writing is on the wall!

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