The USA’s military spending is now close to $2 billion a day. This fall, the country will begin its seventh year of continuous war, with no end in sight. On the horizon is the very real threat of a massive air assault on Iran. And few in Congress seem willing or able to articulate a rejection of the warfare state.
While the Bush-Cheney administration is the most dangerous of our lifetimes — and ousting Republicans from the White House is imperative — such truths are apt to smooth the way for progressive evasions. We hear that “the people must take back the government,” but how can “the people” take back what they never really had? And when rhetoric calls for “returning to a foreign policy based on human rights and democracy,” we’re encouraged to be nostalgic for good old days that never existed.
The warfare state didn’t suddenly arrive in 2001, and it won’t disappear when the current lunatic in the Oval Office moves on.
Born 50 years before George W. Bush became president, I have always lived in a warfare state. Each man in the Oval Office has presided over an arsenal of weapons designed to destroy human life en masse. In recent decades, our self-proclaimed protectors have been able — and willing — to destroy all of humanity.
We’ve accommodated ourselves to this insanity. And I do mean “we” — including those of us who fret aloud that the impact of our peace-loving wisdom is circumscribed because our voices don’t carry much farther than the choir. We may carry around an inflated sense of our own resistance to a system that is poised to incinerate and irradiate the planet.
Maybe it’s too unpleasant to acknowledge that we’ve been living in a warfare state for so long. And maybe it’s even more unpleasant to acknowledge that the warfare state is not just “out there.” It’s also internalized; at least to the extent that we pass up countless opportunities to resist it.
Like millions of other young Americans, I grew into awakening as the Vietnam War escalated. Slogans like “make love, not war” — and, a bit later, “the personal is political” — really spoke to us. But over the decades we generally learned, or relearned, to compartmentalize: as if personal and national histories weren’t interwoven in our pasts, presents and futures.
One day in 1969, a biologist named George Wald, who had won a Nobel Prize, visited the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — the biggest military contractor in academia — and gave a speech. “Our government has become preoccupied with death,” he said, “with the business of killing and being killed.”
That preoccupation has fluctuated, but in essence it has persisted. While speaking of a far-off war and a nuclear arsenal certain to remain in place after the war’s end, Wald pointed out: “We are under repeated pressure to accept things that are presented to us as settled — decisions that have been made.”
Today, in similar ways, our government is preoccupied and we are pressurized. The grisly commerce of killing — whether through carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan or through the deadly shredding of social safety-nets at home — thrives on aggressive war and on the perverse realpolitik of “national security” that brandishes the Pentagon’s weaponry against the world. At least tacitly, we accept so much that threatens to destroy anything and everything.
As it happened, for reasons both “personal” and “political” — more accurately, for reasons indistinguishable between the two — my own life fell apart and began to reassemble itself during the same season of 1969 when George Wald gave his speech, which he called “A Generation in Search of a Future.”
Political and personal histories are usually kept separate — in how we’re taught, how we speak and even how we think. But I’ve become very skeptical of the categories. They may not be much more than illusions we’ve been conned into going through the motions of believing.
We actually live in concentric spheres, and “politics” suffuses households as well as what Martin Luther King Jr. called “The World House.” Under that heading, he wrote in 1967: “When scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men. When we foolishly minimize the internal of our lives and maximize the external, we sign the warrant for our own day of doom. Our hope for creative living in this world house that we have inherited lies in our ability to re-establish the moral ends of our lives in personal character and social justice. Without this spiritual and moral reawakening we shall destroy ourselves in the misuse of our own instruments.”
While trying to understand the essence of what so many Americans have witnessed over the last half century, I worked on a book (titled “Made Love, Got War”) that sifts through the last 50 years of the warfare state… and, in the process, through my own life. I haven’t learned as much as I would have liked, but some patterns emerged — persistent and pervasive since the middle of the 20th century.
The warfare state doesn’t come and go. It can’t be defeated on Election Day. Like it or not, it’s at the core of the United States — and it has infiltrated our very being.
What we’ve tolerated has become part of us. What we accept, however reluctantly, seeps inward. In the long run, passivity can easily ratify even what we may condemn. And meanwhile, in the words of Thomas Merton, “It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared.”
The triumph of the warfare state degrades and suppresses us all. Even before the weapons perform as guaranteed.