Like the Handwriting on the Wall

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The US is a violent society. The violence is not solely a domestic issue, but extends outward over the world, which is like a US plaything of empire. Clichés like the US has noble intentions is pablum for consumption here, with over 800 military bases and rumors of war and war, in which the US is involved in either a direct role or through proxy forces. US wars and its proxy wars make the idea of the US as a force for good a bad and deadly joke. The Guardian reports that post-9/11 wars have led to 4.5 million deaths (May 21, 2023). The latter is hardly something to rally around the flag about boys [sic]. Americanism or American Exceptionalism are for domestic consumption, but even a casual observer can see beyond this nonsense and the wizard’s curtain. On the domestic front, all of the militarism leads in a direct line to millions who live in poverty with lousy schools, poor nutrition, inadequate health care, substandard housing and a host of other ills. We build prisons, fan racism, and hide many people from plain sight. This, in a nation where income inequality has been an ongoing party since Reagan’s tax cuts in the 1980s. Try to touch through fairly administered taxes the wealth of the very wealthy and the cries of foul from those who benefit from a trickle-down society become deafening.

As a society, we have moved as far away from the heroism that marked victory against the forces of evil in World War II as can be imagined. The issues of a just war and a just cause for war have resonated throughout history.

Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about the US as “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world…” at Riverside Church in April 1967, speaking of the Vietnam War. He also noted our addiction to materialism.

In one of our most recent war debacles, the decades-old war in Afghanistan, thousands fled the country (New York Times, May 21, 2023), which was returned to the control of religious extremists in scenes that echo down the decades from the helicopters lifting off of the US embassy in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, in yet another ill-advised and deadly US war. We have our own domestic religious extremists to contend with in the US and they are a clear and present danger.

Joe Biden, a warmonger if there ever was one, will now send F-16s to Ukraine, our latest proxy war with so-called US boots on the ground and train pilots there to fly those jets. No diplomacy here, since the military-industrial-investment complex is living on easy street reaping billions of dollars from fanning the flames of war in Ukraine and courting disaster with Russia, a nuclear power “In a Sharp Reversal, Biden Opens a Path for Ukraine to Get Fighter Jets,” New York Times, May 19, 2023).

It’s impossible to make this scenario up. It’s pure Orwellian! The mass media have fanned the flames of war in Ukraine since its beginning in 2022. Although some daylight has entered the debate in the US, the drumbeat for war became the raison d’être for print, online, and network mass media outlets. They sell us war like they sell us soap. How Putin sold that war in Russia is another issue.

That there is no pushback on the streets to the US selling of the Ukraine war and the absence of most among the cohort of the young in the US in any kind of protest, for whom school debt has become monstrous and careers another reason for being or survival. Many have been sold in an otherwise atomized society, on the mass appeal of war.

The drumbeat of support for Joe Biden in 2023-2024 has already become part of the narrative of the lesser of two evils, among some who claim to be moderate in their political, economic, and social leanings. They point to how Biden is slightly better on domestic issues and we better support him or a catastrophe may ensue. They get the catastrophe part right, but those influencers will hide from plain sight once Biden gives away the farm on domestic issues. Their calls for support for the Democratic Party is like calling for improvement of rail safety standards while witnessing a train wreck.

I can arrive in New York State in only a few minutes, while passing the border from western Massachusetts into the “Empire State.” I don’t get the feeling that I’m arriving at a gulag crossing that border. Gulag’s are always someone else’s problem and can’t happen here in the home of the free and the land of the brave. It seems, however, that prison guards in New York are beating the shit out of prisoners and are never disciplined for their violent behavior. Prisoners have been attacked by “hundreds of prison guards” and get away with their violent behavior without sanctions “Guards Brutally Beat Prisoners and Lied About It. They Weren’t Fired,” New York Times, May 19, 2023).

Attica seems to have taught nothing to those in power in and outside of prisons in New York. Recall in September 1971, with the full knowledge of then-governor Nelson Rockefeller, 39 inmates and guards were killed during the prisoner uprising there, and most of those killed were killed by state officials, including guards and police. Richard Nixon urged Rockefeller to take a law and order stand at Attica. Rockefeller became vice president during the Ford presidency. It’s not hard to see the connections there.

It’s easy to see the links between a heavily militarized society in the US and mass incarceration and violence against many of those people who are imprisoned. Similar links are apparent in gun violence in the US, although that violence is visible and harder to hide than prison violence.

In the land of the free and the home of the brave, there are about 2 million people in some form of detention:

Together, these systems hold almost 2 million people in 1,566 state prisons, 98 federal prisons, 3,116 local jails, 1,323 juvenile correctional facilities, 181 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian country jails, as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.

Look closely enough at the connections between war, including the drug wars, poverty, incarceration, deindustrialization, racism, and income inequality, and the conclusions are like the handwriting 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).