“When our nation commits its military to war,” remarked Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, “it does so for high moral purpose, backed up by military might. And the world’s always been a better place for it.”
That the US relies on its military might, cannot be questioned, though key Bush intimates, including brother Jeb, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz–who added their signatures to a letter published in the closing days of the Clinton presidency, complaining the US military wasn’t up to the task of establishing a new American global empire–thought the nation didn’t rely on its military enough.
Military-slouch Bill Clinton’s 78-day bombing of Yugoslavia; his lofting of cruise missiles at an aspirin factory in the Sudan; his ordering a missile attack on al-Qaeda training facilities in Afghanistan, wasn’t the idea of the kind of steroid-enhanced, military muscle flexing, key members of George W. Bush’s inner circle thought was appropriate for a country that could lay claim–now that the Soviets were out of the way–to a new century, one of peace, prosperity and liberty…for all who matter.
No, a new American century would need a military on Stanozolol, capable of waging wars, here, there and everywhere, including outer space. Rip up the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and pitch fork billions into the National Missile Defense, a project, which, if it works, would provide the capability of striking first against nuclear-armed rivals, with impunity. Formulate a Nuclear Posture Review, with a hit list of countries, nuclear and non-nuclear alike, that just might need to be massively irradiated someday — all in the pursuit of high moral purpose, of course. Refuse to sign on to the International Criminal Court, effectively acknowledging America’s intention to thumb its nose at such inconveniences as the Geneva Conventions, (which criminalizes the Nazi’s behavior in Europe), an intention also announced in the spiriting of “battlefield detainess” to Guantanamo Bay, to be caged, and treated like animals, in defiance of the provisions of the Geneva Conventions respecting the treatment of prisoners of war; pass legislation committing the president to use whatever force necessary to free any American detained on charges of committing war crimes; order ICC signatories not to extradite Americans to the international court, on pain of punishment, while at the same time backing the Hague Tribunal, and others like it, as the preferred version of American-dominated, asymmetrical international justice — foreordained guilt for the conquered, immunity for the conquerors. Make plain that international law is fine and well for other countries, but the United States — guided by its high moral vision — can’t be hamstrung by silly prohibitions that would keep the dogs of war at home, when they could be ranging far abroad paving the way for American “primacy.”
Fleischer’s bombast about US policy makers being guided by high-moral purpose is true, if you buy into the idea that cramming free trade (on US terms) and open markets (for US firms) down the throats of the unwilling has some high moral purpose. The President’s National Security Strategy – which elevates free trade to a moral principle, unless it attenuates the profit margins of American investors, in which case it’s just plain wrong–seems to be enmeshed in this weird logic, if “logic” isn’t too strong a word to describe the veneer people like Fleischer put on the raw pursuit of power and economic advantage for the US elite.
As to the world being a better place for the exercise of US military might, there’s the not inconsequential matter of millions dead in Indochina, thousands blasted away in Yugoslavia, and 5,000 bombed to death in Afghanistan. Ultimately, however, it depends on who you’re talking about. It surely isn’t a better place for the dead, nor those who have been permanently disabled, nor those who have subsequently suffered and died from cancers caused by the rich environmental devastation and widespread broadcast of carcinogens the exercise of US military might inevitably brings. Nor the thousands upon thousands in Iraq who have died from diphtheria, pertusis and other assorted waterborne illnesses, after the Pentagon deliberately destroyed Iraq’s water treatment facilities during the Persian Gulf War, all in defiance of the Geneva Conventions; and nor for the monsters whose births owe much to the use of teratogens, the defoliants used in Vietnam and depleted uranium used in Iraq; nor the limbless children blown to bits by bomb–lets from unexploded cluster bombs; and nor the American veterans who have died slow, painful deaths, from such mysterious illnesses as Gulf War syndrome, which the Pentagon poohs-poohs as a myth.
But for Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and a long string of military contractors, whose profits swell with each pool of blood spilled, the world has indeed become a better place. So, too, has it improved for shareholders and executives whose opportunities to exploit new resources, new markets, and new areas of low-wage labor abroad, have been enlarged, courtesy of the Pentagon. And for political Washington, that sits atop a rapidly expanding empire, how could the exercise of US military power be seen as anything but the world becoming a better place?
Regrettably, for many ordinary Americans, the world, though not a better place for them, is nevertheless seen to be a better place. Freud once said something about ordinary Romans being compensated for the heavy price they paid in taxes and military service, by the idea that as part of Rome, they had a say in how lesser countries were run. They basked in the reflected prestige of the Empire, in the same way, today, many Americans think of themselves as somehow greater for the shit-kicking “we’ve” given the Taliban, as if killing peasants half way around the world is an Olympic event, and the United States just cleaned up in the medals (which the United States surely would, if it was.) And how is it that Americans, safe in their homes, and no closer to the chaos and horrors of war than what CNN, and, therefore, the Pentagon, allows them to glimpse, think they’ve participated in the killing, much less had anything to do with the decisions that led to it?
This regarding killing the weak and defenseless as an Olympic event, was no more evident than when a female comedian from Chicago, showed up at the taping of a talk show in Toronto, and proceeded to deliver what she though was an enormous compliment to her Canadian audience. “You guys are sure whipping ass in Afghanistan. Whooo. Way to go Canada.”
If she could have heard the thoughts of the Canadians, as they averted their eyes, in embarrassed silence. “What the hell is she talking about? An ass whooping ‘we’ gave them. I wasn’t there. How the hell could ‘I’ give them an ass-whooping. And why the hell would I be happy about beating the shit out of a Third World country that could no more defend itself, than Gary Coleman could last more than a minute in the ring against a pissed-off Mike Tyson. What’s with these Americans? They march around the world, picking on the weakest countries, and then crow about their military prowess.”
Declaring membership in the ranks of the ubermenschen is one reason Americans line up in support of US wars of aggression. Another reason is to make damn sure the bogeyman doesn’t get them. Yeah, the bogeymen, or what the American journalist H.L. Mencken once called hobgoblins. The art of practical politics, he said, is menacing the population with hobgoblins, none of which are real, to frighten people into doing what they wouldn’t do otherwise…like supporting unprovoked attacks on other countries.
There have been plenty of hobgoblins: Communism, Castro, the Sandinistas, Noriega, the Soviets, Kaddaffi, the Ayatollah, Saddam Hussein, terrorism, Slobodan Milosevic, the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, and, making his return engagement, Saddam Hussein. To follow: someone from Iran, when Washington closes Act II of its war on terrorism, and opens Act III: the conquest of Iran’s oil fields, billed once again as the exercise of American military power for high moral purpose.
Invoking a bogeyman is a very effective way for governments to induce their populations to fall into line; impending danger strikes a deep, primitive, and visceral chord. Maybe you can’t make the case that an attack on Iraq is legal, or has the backing of the UN and international community; maybe you can’t show Iraq is connected to al-Qaeda or 9/11; maybe a casus belli built on Iraq’s defiance of UN resolutions raises too many questions about Israel; and maybe the real goal is to secure access to Iraq’s oil. (Do we want to be held to blackmail over such a vital resource?) But if it’s possible, just possible, that Saddam is going to give chemical or biological weapons to terrorists who hate us, or build a nuclear devise to be smuggled into the United States in a suitcase, who really cares about international law, and whether Washington supported Saddam when he was committing the worst of his atrocities? If thousands upon thousands of Iraqis have to die, better them, than me. We can’t let something like 9/11 happen again, and if that means taking out ruthless, evil, dictators, like Saddam, even if the threat isn’t fully formed, better to deal with the uncertainty now, than to wait for a mushroom cloud to rise over New York, or Washington, or gosh…my own city, later. Surely, this is what many Americans think.
Can you blame them? Was there ever a time a gathering storm wasn’t pressing down upon Americans, threatening to imperil, if not Americans themselves, then “American interests,” that high-sounding phrase that 90 percent of Americans don’t know the meaning of, and 99 percent of government officials don’t want them to understand? Just what are these interests that Americans have, that requires the US military to put down roots in every far flung corner of the globe? The toil of the poor, the oil of the wretched, a sweatshop here, a mine there, a market to sell into over there. In other words, the interests of other people, in other places, appropriated for the greater gain of corporate executives and investors. These are “American” interests: the interests of Americans who matter.
But since 9/11 it has become much more personal than American interests abroad, and whether we can let a thug defy the international community, and domino theory, and standing up for freedom and democracy. Now it’s about personal, physical safety, and whether something like 9/11, or far worse, can happen again. Will we kill the bogeyman, before he kills us?
The problem is, you can’t kill the bogeyman. Like Freddy Kruger, just when you think you can relax, he’s back. Kaddafi, the Ayatollah, Saddam, Daniel Ortega, Noriega, Milosevic. One goes, the next one comes. Osama fades away. Saddam is ushered out of the wings. Different guy, same bogeyman. And after Saddam, someone else. And then someone else. And someone else. And someone else again. Just one long string of bogeymen, Mencken’s hobgoblins.
It would be going too far to say none of the threats are real. Some are. Victims sometimes strike back, if they’re able to. But call the threats highly exaggerated, many magnified out of proportion, until they become cartoonish distortions whose existence owes everything to their capacity to terrorize, and nothing to reality.
Going along with Washington isn’t going to get rid of bogeymen. Washington needs bogeymen as much as an addict needs regular fixes. Getting rid of the incessant terror, both the manufactured kind, and the kind that arises as a result of US foreign policy, requires a radically different approach.
First, do away with the reasons bogeymen are invented in the first place. If there’s nothing to frighten the public into going along with, there’s no need for a bogeyman. Root out what drives governments to launch wars of conquest, and you eliminate the requirement to keep the population in a constant state of agitation. And what drives the US government to launch wars of aggression is laid out in official documents, from the Pentagon’s Central Command strategy to the President’s National Security Strategy. It’s economic privilege (not of Americans as a whole, but of Americans who own and control the economy); and its economic privilege secured at the expense–and the growing poverty and desperation–of other people, many of them the poorest in the world.
Second, some threats arise as a result of conquest. These are threats that come from the victimization of others. Governments know how to deal with these threats, because they specify the ways all the time — unfortunately, not for themselves, but for others. Take, for example, the prescription for peace George W. Bush delivered to Iraq:
“If the Iraqi regime wishes peace, it will immediately and unconditionally forswear, disclose and remove or destroy all weapons of mass destruction, long-range missiles and all related material.
“If the Iraqi regime wishes peace, it will immediately end all support for terrorism and act to suppress it, as all states are required to do by U.N. Security Council resolutions.
“If the Iraqi regime wishes peace, it will cease persecution of its civilian population, including Shi’a, Sunnis, Kurds, Turkomans and others — again as required by Security Council resolutions.
And on and on. These are good recommendations. But rearrange the words, and redirect the focus, and Bush’s prescription becomes a credible plan for America, too; a plan America should embrace. Borrowing from writer David McGowan, this is what Bush should have said, in addition to what he said about Iraq:
We want peace. We will immediately and unconditionally forswear, disclose and remove or destroy all weapons of mass destruction, long-range missiles and all related material.
We want peace. We will immediately end all support for terrorism, including that practised by the KLA, and by anti-Cuban terrorists, and act to suppress terrorism, as all states are required to do by U.N. Security Council resolutions.
We want peace. We will accept liability for losses resulting from the saturation bombing of Iraq, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, accept responsibility for the devastating environmental damage inflicted on these countries, remove all unexploded cluster bomblets, decontaminate all areas where depleted uranium weaponry was used.
We want peace. We will immediately end the shipment of armaments and weapons of mass destruction to other countries, beginning with Israel, Turkey and Colombia.
We want peace. We will immediately reorient our national security strategy to the protection of the homeland, and not to the conquest of new markets, new resources, and new areas of low wage labor abroad. The United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps will become what they were intended to be: defensive forces, to deter and repel attacks on the homeland. They will no longer be the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for the banks, big oil, and Silicon Valley’s technologies.
We are committed to the view that a materially secure existence can be secured for all in the world; that all the world’s people are entitled to education, health care, adequate shelter, adequate clothing, and adequate nutrition, and that securing these things is well within our collective means. This, we believe, is the surest way to secure a lasting peace.
We want peace.
Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.