Steve July 27, 2020
thinking-about-the-unthinkable-(2020-style)

Originally posted at TomDispatch.

He sent what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called
his “unidentified storm troopers” togged
out
like soldiers in a war zone onto streets filled with protesters
in Portland, Oregon. Those camouflage-clad federal law enforcement agents were
evidently from
the
Department of Homeland Security’s Federal
Protective Service
and the Customs and Border Protection agency. Soon,
hundreds of them are evidently going
to “surge”
– a term that should sound eerily
familiar
– into Chicago and other cities run by Democratic mayors.
In such a fashion, Tweety McTreason is quite literally bringing this country’s wars
home. Speaking
with
reporters in the Oval Office, he recently described everyday violence
in Chicago as “worse than Afghanistan, by far.” He was talking about
the country the U.S. invaded in 2001 and in which it hasn’t stopped fighting
ever since, a land where more
than 100,000
civilians reportedly died violently between 2010 and 2019.
By now, violence in Chicago (which is
indeed grim
) has, in the mind of the Great Confabulator, become “worse
than anything anyone has ever seen” and so worthy of yet more militarized
chaos.

Of course, in speaking of such violence, the president clearly wasn’t talking
about Christopher David’s broken bones. That Navy veteran, having read of unidentified
federal agents snatching
protesters off Portland’s streets in unmarked vans, took a bus to the city’s
nighttime protests. He wanted to
ask
such agents personally how they could justify their actions in terms
of the oath they took to support the Constitution. For doing just that, they
beat and pepper-sprayed him. Now, the president who claimed he would end all
American wars (but hasn’t faintly done so) has offered a footnote to that promise.
Admittedly, he’s only recently agreed, so
it seems
, to leave at least 4,000 American troops (and god knows how many
private contractors) in Afghanistan beyond the November election, while US air
strikes there continue
into what will be their 19th year. Now, however, he’s stoking violence at home
as well in search of an issue to mobilize and strengthen his waning support
in the upcoming election.

In other words, he’s giving the very idea of our wars coming home new meaning.
As retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, historian, and TomDispatch
regular
William Astore suggests today, this country’s “forever wars”
have become a kind of global pandemic of their own. It tells you all you need
to know about this country in July 2020 that, even as congressional Democrats
and Republicans fight over what kind of new bill to pass to help coronavirus-riven
America, another bill will face no such issues in Congress. I’m thinking of
the one that Republican Senator James Inhofe has labeled
“the most important bill of the year”: to fund the US military (and
the military-industrial complex that goes with it). Oh, wait, unless the president
decides to veto
it
because a mandate may be included in it to remove the names of Confederate
generals from US military bases.

Really, can you imagine a world in more of a pandemic mess than this one? Well,
let Astore take a shot at it. ~ Tom


Killing Democracy in America: The Military-Industrial Complex as
a Cytokine Storm

By William J. Astore

The phrase “thinking about the unthinkable” has always been associated
with the unthinkable
cataclysm
of a nuclear war, and rightly so. Lately, though, I’ve been
pondering another kind of unthinkable scenario, nearly as nightmarish (at least
for a democracy) as a thermonuclear Armageddon, but one that’s been rolling
out in far slower motion: that America’s war on terror never ends because it’s
far more convenient for America’s leaders to keep it going – until, that is,
it tears apart anything we ever imagined as democracy.

I fear that it either can’t or won’t end because, as Martin Luther King, Jr.,
pointed
out
in 1967 during the Vietnam War, the United States remains the world’s
greatest
purveyor
of violence – and nothing in this century, the one he didn’t live
to see, has faintly proved him wrong. Considered another way, Washington should
be classified as the planet’s most committed arsonist, regularly setting or
fanning the flames of fires globally from Libya to Iraq, Somalia to Afghanistan,
Syria to – dare I say it – in some quite imaginable future Iran, even as our
leaders invariably boast of having the world’s greatest firefighters (also known
as the
US military
).

Scenarios of perpetual war haunt my thoughts. For a healthy democracy, there
should be few things more unthinkable than never-ending conflict, that steady
drip-drip of death and destruction that drives militarism,
reinforces authoritarianism, and facilitates disaster
capitalism
. In 1795, James Madison warned
Americans that war of that sort would presage the slow death of freedom and
representative government. His prediction seems all too relevant in a world
in which, year after year, this country continues to engage in needless wars
that have nothing to do with national defense.

You Wage War Long, You Wage It Wrong

To cite one example of needless war from the last century, consider America’s
horrendous
years of fighting in Vietnam and a critical lesson drawn firsthand from that
conflict by reporter Jonathan Schell. “In Vietnam,” he
noted
, “I learned about the capacity of the human mind to build a model
of experience that screens out even very dramatic and obvious realities.”
As a young journalist covering the war, Schell saw that the US was losing, even
as its military was destroying startlingly large areas of South Vietnam in the
name of saving it from communism. Yet America’s leaders, the “best
and brightest
” of the era, almost to a man refused to see that all
of what passed for realism in their world, when it came to that war, was nothing
short of a first-class lie.

Why? Because believing is seeing and they desperately wanted to believe that
they were the good guys, as well as the most powerful guys on the planet. America
was winning, it practically went without saying, because it had to be. They
were infected by their own version of an all-American victory
culture
, blinded by a sense of this country’s obvious destiny: to be
the most exceptional and exceptionally triumphant nation on this planet.

As it happened, it was far more difficult for grunts on the ground to deny
the reality of what was happening – that they were fighting and dying in a
senseless war. As a result, especially after the shock of the enemy’s Tet Offensive
early in 1968, escalating protests within the military (and among veterans at
home) together with massive antiwar demonstrations finally helped put the brakes
on that war. Not before, however, more
than
58,000 American troops died, along with millions
of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians.

In the end, the war in Indochina was arguably too costly, messy, and futile
to continue. But never underestimate the military-industrial
complex
, especially when it comes to editing or denying reality, while
being eternally over-funded for that very reality. It’s a trait the complex
has shared with politicians of both parties. Don’t forget, for instance, the
way President Ronald Reagan reedited that disastrous conflict into a “noble
cause
” in the 1980s. And give him credit! That was no small thing
to sell to an American public that had already lived through such a war. By
the way, tell me something about that Reaganesque moment doesn’t sound vaguely
familiar almost four decades later when our very own “wartime
president
” long ago declared
victory
in the “war” on Covid-19, even as the death toll from
that virus approaches 150,000 in the homeland.

In the meantime, the military-industrial complex has mastered the long
con
of the no-win
forever war
in a genuinely impressive fashion. Consider the war in Afghanistan.
In 2021 it will enter its third decade without an end in sight. Even when President
Trump makes noises
about withdrawing troops from that country, Congress approves an amendment to
another massive, record-setting military budget with broad bipartisan
support
that effectively obstructs any efforts to do so (while the Pentagon
continues to bargain
Trump down
on the subject).

The Vietnam War, which was destroying the US military, finally ended in an
ignominious withdrawal. Almost two decades later, after the 2001 invasion, the
war in Afghanistan can now be – the dream of the Vietnam era – fought in a “limited”
fashion, at least from the point of view of Congress, the Pentagon, and most
Americans (who ignore it), even if not the Afghans. The number of American troops
being killed is, at this point, acceptably
low
, almost imperceptible in fact (even if not to Americans who have lost
loved ones over there).

More and more, the US military is relying on air
power
, unmanned drones, mercenaries, local militias, paramilitaries, and
private contractors. Minimizing American casualties is an effective way of minimizing
negative media coverage here; so, too, are efforts by the Trump administration
to classify nearly everything related to that war while denying
or downplaying
collateral
damage
” – that is, dead civilians – from it.

Their efforts boil down to a harsh truth: America just plain lies
about
its forever wars, so that it can keep on killing in lands far
from home.

When we as Americans refuse to take in the destruction we cause, we come to
passively accept the belief system of the ruling class that what’s still bizarrely
called “defense” is a “must have” and that we collectively
must spend significantly
more than
a trillion dollars a year on the Pentagon, the Department
of Homeland Security, and a sprawling network of intelligence agencies, all
justified as necessary defenders of America’s freedom. Rarely does the public
put much thought into the dangers inherent in a sprawling “defense”
network that increasingly invades and dominates our lives.

Meanwhile, it’s clear that low-cost
wars
, at least in terms of US troops killed and wounded in action, can essentially
be prolonged indefinitely, even when they never result in anything faintly like
victory or fulfill any faintly useful American goal. The Afghan War remains
the case in point. “Progress” is a concept that only ever fits the
enemy
– the Taliban continues to gain ground – yet, in these years, figures
like retired general and former CIA director David Petraeus have continued to
call for a “generational
commitment of troops and resources there, akin to US support for South Korea.

Who says the Pentagon leadership learned nothing from Vietnam? They learned
how to wage open-ended wars basically forever, which has proved useful indeed
when it comes to justifying and sustaining epic
military budgets
and the political authority that goes with them. But
here’s the thing: in a democracy, if you wage war long, you wage it wrong. Athens
and the historian Thucydides learned this the hard way in the struggle against
Sparta more than two millennia ago. Why do we insist on forgetting such an obvious
lesson?

“We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us”

World War II was arguably the last war Americans truly had to fight. My Uncle
Freddie was in the Army and stationed at Pearl Harbor when it was attacked on
December 7, 1941. The country then came together and won a global conflict (with
lots of help) in 44 months, emerging as the planetary superpower to boot. Now,
that superpower is very much on the wane, as Tweety McTreason recognized in running
successfully as a declinist
candidate
for president in 2016. (Make America Great Again!)
And yet, though he ran against this country’s forever wars and is now president,
we’re approaching the third decade of a war on terror that has yielded little,
spread radical Islamic terror outfits across an expanse of the planet, and still
seemingly has no end.

“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” Trump himself
claimed
only last year. Yet that’s exactly what this country has been
doing, regardless of which party ruled the roost in Washington. And here’s where,
to give him credit, Trump actually had a certain insight. America is no longer
great precisely because of the endless wars we wage and all the largely hidden
but associated costs that go with them, including the recently much publicized
militarization
of the police here at home. Yet, in promising to make America great again, President
Trump has
failed
to end those wars, even as he’s fed the military-industrial complex
with even greater piles of cash.

There’s a twisted logic to all this. As the leading purveyor of violence and
terror, with its leaders committed to fighting Islamic terrorism across the
planet until the phenomenon is vanquished, the US inevitably becomes its own
opponent, conducting a perpetual war on itself. Of course, in the process, Afghans,
Iraqis, Libyans, Syrians, Somalis, and Yemenis, among other peoples on this
embattled planet of ours, pay big time, but Americans pay, too. (Have you even
noticed that high-speed railroad that’s unbuilt,
that dam in increasing disrepair,
those bridges that need fixing, while money continues to pour
into the national security state?) As the cartoon possum Pogo once so classically
said,
“We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Early in the Iraq War, General Petraeus asked
a question that was relevant indeed: “Tell me how this [war] ends.”
The answer, obvious to so many who had protested
in the global streets over the invasion to come in 2003, was “not well.”
Today, another answer should be obvious: never, if the Pentagon and America’s
political and national security elite have anything to do with it. In thermodynamics
class, I learned that a perpetual motion machine is impossible to create due
to entropy. The Pentagon never took that in and has instead been hard at work
proving that a perpetual military machine is possible… until, that is, the
empire it feeds off of collapses and takes us with it.

America’s Military Complex as a Cytokine Storm

In the era of Covid-19, as cases and deaths from the pandemic continue to soar
in America, it’s astonishing that military spending is also soaring to record
levels
despite a medical emergency and a major recession.

The reality is that, in the summer of 2020, America faces two deadly viruses.
The first is Covid-19. With hard work and some luck, scientists may be able
to mass-produce an effective vaccine for it, perhaps by as early as next
spring
. In the meantime, scientists do have a sense of how to control it,
contain it, even neutralize it, as countries from South Korea and New Zealand
to Denmark have shown, even if some Americans, encouraged by our president,
insist on throwing all caution to the winds in the name of living free. The
second virus, however, could prove even more difficult to control, contain,
and neutralize: forever war, a pandemic that US military forces, with their
global strike missions, continue to spread across the globe.

Sadly, it’s a reasonable bet that in the long run, even with Tweety McTreason
as president, America has a better chance of defeating Covid-19 than the virus
of forever war. At least, the first is generally seen as a serious threat (even
if
not
by a president blind to anything but his chances for reelection);
the second is, however, still largely seen as evidence of our strength and exceptionalism.
Indeed, Americans tend to imagine “our” military not as a dangerous virus but
as a set of benevolent antibodies, defending us from global evildoers.

When it comes to America’s many wars, perhaps there’s something to be learned
from the way certain people’s immune systems respond to Covid-19. In some cases,
the virus sparks an exaggerated immune response that drives the body into a
severe inflammatory state known as a cytokine
storm
. That “storm” can lead to multiple organ failure followed by death,
yet it occurs in the cause of defending the body from a viral attack.

In a similar fashion, America’s exaggerated response to 19 hijackers on 9/11
and then to perceived threats around the globe, especially the nebulous threat
of terror, has led to an analogous (if little noticed) cytokine storm in the
American system. Military (and militarized
police
) antibodies have been sapping our resources, inflaming our body
politic, and slowly strangling the vital organs of democracy. Left unchecked,
this “storm” of inflammatory militarism
will be the death of democracy in America.

To put this country right, what’s needed is not only an effective vaccine for
Covid-19 but a way to control the “antibodies” produced by America’s forever
wars abroad and, as the years have gone by, at home – and the ways they’ve attacked
and inflamed the collective US political, social, and economic body. Only when
we find ways to vaccinate ourselves against the destructive violence of those
wars, whether on foreign streets or our own, can we begin to heal as a democratic
society.

To survive, the human body needs a healthy immune system, so when it goes haywire,
becomes wildly inflamed, and ends up attacking and degrading our vital organs,
we’re in trouble deep. It’s a reasonable guess that, in analogous terms, American
democracy is already on a ventilator and beginning to feel the effects of multiple
organ failure.

Unlike a human patient, doctors can’t put our democracy into a medically induced
coma. But collectively we should be working to suppress our overactive immune
system before it kills us. In other words, it’s truly time to defund
that military machine of ours, as well as the militarized version of the police,
and rethink how actual threats can be neutralized without turning every response
into an endless war.

So many years later, it’s time to think the unthinkable. For the US government
that means – gasp! – peace. Such a peace would start with imperial retrenchment
(bring our troops home!), much reduced military (and police) budgets, and complete
withdrawal
from Afghanistan and any other place associated with that “generational”
war on terror. The alternative is a cytokine storm that will, in the end, tear
us apart from within.

William Astore, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, taught history
for 15 years. A
TomDispatch
regular
, he also has a personal blog, Bracing
Views
.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter
and join us on
Facebook.
Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the
second in the Splinterlands series)
Frostlands,
Beverly Gologorsky’s novel
Every
Body Has a Story
, and Tom Engelhardt’s A
Nation Unmade by War
, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In
the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power

and John Dower’s
The
Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II
.

Copyright 2020 William J. Astore

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