My grandfather, the oldest of six children, grew up in a tenement (subsequently destroyed to make way for the construction of Robert Moses’s Lincoln Center) on Manhattan’s west side, and started working as a young teen after the death of his mother. From butcher boy, to stock runner, to tax collector, life eventually led him into the US Army where – recognizing that the US would likely enter the war – he applied for Officer Candidate School in the late 1930s. He served in the Transportation Corps for much of the Second World War in what is now Iran. Thankfully, he did not die there.
My father, born in New York City but raised in Westchester, served as a chaplain in the US Air Force as a young man at a time when he was still considering entering – as had his two uncles, for whom I’m named – the Roman Catholic priesthood and the US was in the process of withdrawing from Vietnam. He also survived his time in the Service.
Unlike my father and grandfather – who shared a name – or my two great uncles, for whom I’m named, I had no urge or obligation to join the military, and discovered no vocation for religious life. As the beneficiary of various of their choices, sacrifices, and privileges, far be it from me to pass judgment on their life paths, and yet, it can be helpful to situate our own lives and families historical lest we stumble through the world with undue blindness to its hard truths.
As a settler-colonial project, the British colonies in North America and later the United States which grew out of them were founded on slavery and genocide. The scorched earth style of warfare that the US military employed in genocidal campaigns against the indigenous people of what came to be the contemporary United States were adapted, as the US began to shift its colonial and imperial gaze beyond North America, for wars of conquest and campaigns of counterinsurgency from the Philippines to Cuba and across much of the Western Hemisphere.
Post-World War II, as the US emerged as the new global hegemon, its propagandists understandably preferred to focus on the “good wars” that had been fought “in defense of democracy” rather than on brutal campaigns of torture, extermination, and internment in concentration camps of resistance fighters and civilians alike. Now is not the time to dig into the scholarship of inter-imperialist struggle, nor to re-hash the information politics of the Cold War, but it is worth noting that – while the historic evil of Nazism, especially, is beyond any denial (which has not prevented active movements of just such detail from taking root in this country, as elsewhere) – the versions of World War I and II history which prevail in the United States, and can be found repeated on corporate media and in history classrooms around the country ad nauseam, are mostly self-serving lies. This is not, and never has been, a country that excels at self-reflection.
I say this because readers might be inclined to find, in the Vietnam War, a divergence from the historic norm of US warfighting (as exemplified by the aforementioned “wars for democracy”), and yet, viewed through any honest and comprehensive lens, that undeclared war on the people of a country on the actual other side of the world (which many residents of the United States would, today, no doubt still struggle to identify on a map) was far more in keeping with the pattern of exterminationism that has characterized the distinctive British-settler-colonial/US style of making war since the earliest massacres of Powhatans and Pequots. The world wars – not the genocidal, imperialist, and white supremacist campaigns – were the anomalies.
Why write this now? I’m seeing a lot of tributes today connecting the US war dead of years, decades, and centuries past with the loss of the 100,000+ people who have already died of COVID-19 in this country. It’s unsurprising that this connection should be made on Memorial Day, and yet, it does force the question: Why?
I’ve been critical, from the outset, of the militaristic imagery that has been employed – in this country, as elsewhere – in characterizing struggles against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Since 9/11, in this country, we’ve seen a steady (further) militarization of every aspect of our lives in the name of security (and freedom, and justice, and counter-terrorism). One can hardly watch a professional sporting event or have even a simple conversation these days without finding the imagery and language of war and our military thrust front of mind and center stage. I invite you: Stop and think every time you use a military metaphor. If you’re like me, I except you’ll find it striking how fully the language of bombs and guns, planes and murder has come to structure our lives.
And why would it be any other way? We are, as Arthur Kroker put it, the “bunkered-down populations of the empire,” and declining though the hegemon that is the United States may be, for now, it still constitutes the richest and most powerful empire the world has ever known. Hundreds (perhaps approaching a thousand, for the secrecy of the Pentagon makes it hard to truly know) military bases spread across every continent. An annual budget which – counting the uncounted military allotments for intelligence, or that are channeled through Departments of State, Energy, or Interior – likely exceeds $1 trillion (which, even in this time of unprecedentedly large “relief” bills, is still a lot of money). Nuclear and conventional armaments sufficient to leave the entire world in ruins and to trigger nuclear winter multiple times over. This is our military, and yet, “bunkered-down” as we are, those of us not from communities or populations touched by the US military either through service or through invasion, drone bombing, or any of the other direct and indirect violence by which our military extends and enforces our national power globally, enjoy the luxury of largely forgetting that this world-defining institution – the United States military – exists.
Like white privilege, male privilege – really any form of identity privilege – the privilege of being a citizen or resident of the United States, though especially of being such and of a certain class, is the privilege of not having to think about the US military very much, and the further privilege that, when you do think about it, it mostly makes you feel good. Strong. Like you could break out at any moment in that terrifyingly ubiquitous chant: “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” In Iraq, as in Puerto Rico, as across the vast majority of the world’s nations and communities, I think it’s safe to say that most people do not enjoy such a privilege or have such a feeling about the US military.
This piece could prove very long if I persist, but it’s nice and sunny out today and I want to go lay on my roof and not think about the US military either, so I will try to wrap this expeditiously by sharing a few resources. Although there is a four-century long through thread to the logic and style of warfighting in which our military still specializes, I agree, for the most part, with President Eisenhower’s oft-referenced assessment from his “Farewell Speech” that:
Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United State corporations.
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence-economic, political, even spiritual-is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
There were, of course, arms manufacturers in the US prior to the world wars, but what emerged in their aftermath was something qualitatively new in US (and perhaps world) history. (For people interested in a primer on all this, Eugene Jarecki’s 2005 film, Why We Fight – which shares a title with the Frank Capra propaganda films – still offers an excellent point of entry.) Jeffrey Sachs – who has his own Shock Therapy legacy for which to answer – makes the case in this piece for the American Prospect that it was Lyndon Johnson’s attempt to fund both Great Society social welfare spending and the US War on Vietnam that led to the collapse of post-War Keynesianism in this country, and while the dynamics at play – including those between labor and capital – are highly complex, we’ve witnessed in this century the catastrophic domestic, international, and global consequences of US imperialism and the trade-offs it entails. The Costs of War Project now puts the total (monetary) cost of “U.S. War on Terror spending” – spending chiefly directed towards the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan – at $6.4 trillion. Again, that’s still a lot of money.
In fact, $6.4 trillion is roughly 1.5x the entire US federal budget for 2019, and roughly 4x the “discretionary outlays” in that budget, and roughly 10x the non-defense, non-interest outlays in that budget. Put another way, we basically threw away ten years of spending to wage wars premised on lies, that have caused untold harm, and that have redounded not at all to the benefit of the United States.
Imagine if that money had been put into mass transit, renewable energy, healthcare and public health, education, etc., etc. instead of into attempting to destroy a great civilization, killing millions of civilians, and immiserating tens of millions more while, in the process, enriching a lot of politically-connected military contractors. Imagine. We’d be well on our way to a Green New Deal by now; we might have had a functioning public health apparatus and a funded pandemic preparedness plan in place around January of this year; Iraq wouldn’t have been destroyed; there would be no ISIS…
Plenty of problems would have persisted, but fewer of them would have been directly of our making, and we might even have directed some of that money and energy towards good instead of evil in the process.
I honor our war dead, as I honor our military living, as I honor the victims of our military. I don’t particularly blame our service members for the actions of the US military – in fact, for reasons of class and nationality, I think it would be deeply hypocritical of me to do so – but I do celebrate the many courageous acts of resistance to US militarism that have been taken by US military veterans, and respect the leadership of organizations and efforts past and present such as: Winter Soldier, Veterans for Peace, and About Face.
Just as we don’t authentically support healthcare workers by banging pots and pans or wasting tax dollars on flyovers by military jets, we don’t authentically honor US military dead or “support our troops” through uncritically accepting jingoism, hysteria, and lies. I’m enough of a realist to recognize that there are not clean-cut alternatives to US power at the moment; the world is complex and dynamic, and there are forces more malign than our own government also at play in global geopolitics. That’s for another and much longer piece.
In the meantime, the daylight’s waning, so I’ll close.
Yesterday, by coincidence, I read this White House document – entitled “United States Strategic Approach to The People’s Republic of China” – and this Tricontinental newsletter – an “Appeal” which calls for “peoples of the world” to “[s]tand against the warmongering of US imperialism, which seeks to impose dangerous wars on an already fragile planet” – one after the other. To read and understand both tells one a lot about the world, and I encourage you to do just that.