Steve January 13, 2021
we’re-all-prisoners-of-war-now

Originally posted at TomDispatch.

America has essentially been at war, nonstop,
since the weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Those “forever wars,”
as they’re now commonly called, have been both truly distant from and
eerily close to us, far away and yet a deeply embedded part of American life.
And here, to my mind, is the strangest thing: those rare figures who, as citizens
(or in one case an outsider), managed to reach into the heart of the American-war
and national-security states and reveal something of what was actually being
done in our names have suffered grim fates indeed.

Take Edward Snowden, who, in 2013, as a private contractor working for the
National Security Agency (NSA), revealed
the vast surveillance structure that had been built in the shadows — quite
literally as a kind of shadow government — in the post-9/11 years and
significantly aimed at Americans. For his revelations (that is, his “crime”),
he would be charged
under the 1917 Espionage Act meant to criminalize dissent against the U.S. entry
into World War I. He is now a resident
of Russia (of all places) because, were he to return to his homeland, he might
never again make it out of a prison cell. Chelsea Manning, who as an Army intelligence
analyst in Iraq passed secret information and documents to WikiLeaks revealing
American crimes in its wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, was charged
under that same law and found herself imprisoned from 2010 until 2017, when
President Obama commuted
her 35-year sentence. She was then sent back to jail
again
for refusing to testify in court against WikiLeaks founder Julian
Assange. And he was, of course, the one outsider among the three of them but
was indicted
under that same Espionage Act. Having made public secret documents revealing
a series of American nightmarish acts and crimes in its war on (and of) terror,
he only recently avoided — thanks to a British
judge
— being extradited to the US and possibly locked away for life
(or death) here, though he remains incarcerated in Britain. Think of the three
of them as, in a sense, prisoners of Washington’s never-ending war on
terror (the only equivalent to them being the accused al-Qaeda operatives locked
away, seemingly
forever
and untried, in the American offshore prison set up in 2001 at Guantanamo
Bay, Cuba).

Retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and TomDispatch
regular
William Astore makes an all too relevant point today that I’ve
never seen made before. In the war on terror years, thanks to our never-ending
conflicts and the staggering
funding
of the military-industrial complex that, even in this pandemic
moment, accompanies them, not just those three figures but all of us have,
in some fashion, become American POWs of a new kind. ~ Tom


POW Nation: When Will America
Free Itself From War?

By William Astore

“POWs Never Have A Nice Day.” That sentiment was captured on a button a friend
of mine wore for our fourth grade class
photo
in 1972. That prisoners of war could never have such a day was reinforced
by the sad face on that button. Soon after, American POWs would indeed be released
by their North Vietnamese captors as the American war in Vietnam ended. They
came home the next year to a much-hyped heroes’
welcome
orchestrated by the administration of President Richard Nixon, but
the government would never actually retire its POW/MIA
(missing-in-action) flags. Today, almost half a century later, they continue
to fly at federal installations, including the US Capitol as it was breached
and briefly besieged last week by a mob incited by this country’s lame-duck
president, ostensibly to honor all US veterans who were either POWs or never
returned because their bodies were never recovered.

Remembering the sacrifices of our veterans is fitting and proper; it’s why
we set aside Memorial Day in May and Veterans Day in November. In thinking
about those POWs and the dark legacy of this country’s conflicts since
World War II, however, I’ve come to a realization. In the ensuing
years, we Americans have all, in some sense, become prisoners of war.
We’re all part of a culture that continues to esteem
war
, embrace
militarism
, and devote more
than half
of federal discretionary spending to wars, weaponry, and the
militarization of American culture. We live in a country that leads
the world in the export
of murderous munitions to the grimmest, most violent
hotspots
on the planet, enabling, for example, a genocidal conflict in
Yemen, among other conflicts.

True, in a draft-less country, few enough Americans actually don a military
uniform these days. As 2021 begins, most of us have never carried a
military identification card that mentions the Geneva
Convention
on the proper and legal treatment of POWs, as I did when I
wore a uniform long ago. So, when I say that all Americans are essentially
POWs, I’m obviously using that acronym not in a legal or formal way, but in
the colloquial sense of being captured by some phenomenon, held by it, subjected
to it in a fashion that tends to restrict, if not eliminate, freedom of thought
and action and so compromises this country’s belief in sacred individual
liberties. In this colloquial sense, it seems to me that all Americans
have in some fashion become prisoners of war, even those few “prisoners” among
us who have worked so bravely and tirelessly to resist the phenomenon.

Ask yourself this question: During a deadly pandemic, as the American death
toll approaches 400,000 while still accelerating, what unites “our”
representatives in Congress? What is the only act that draws wide and fervent
bipartisan support, not to speak of a unique
override
of a Trump presidential veto in these last four years? It certainly
isn’t providing health care for all or giving struggling families checks for
$2,000 to ensure that food will be on American tables or that millions of us
won’t be evicted from our homes in the middle of a pandemic. No, what
unites “our” representatives is funding
the military-industrial complex to the tune of $740.5 billion in fiscal year
2021 (though the real amount spent on what passes for “national security” each
year regularly exceeds a trillion
dollars
). Still, that figure of $740.5 billion in itself is already higher
than the combined military spending of the next
10 countries
, including Russia and China as well as US allies like France,
Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Not only that, but Congress added
language
to the latest defense bill that effectively blocked efforts by
Tweety McTreason before he leaves office on January 20th to mandate the withdrawal
of all troops from Afghanistan (and some troops from Germany). Though
it’s doubtful he would have accomplished such goals anyway, given his irresolute
nature, that Congress worked to block him tells you what you need to know
about “our” representatives and their allegiance to the war complex.

That said, an irresolute Trump administration has been most resolute in just
one area: selling advanced weaponry overseas. It’s been rushing to export
American-made bombs,
missiles
, and jets
to the Middle East before turning over government efforts to shill for America’s
merchants of death to President Joe Biden and his crew of deskbound warriors.

Speaking of Biden, that he selected retired General
Lloyd Austin III
to be his secretary of defense sends the strongest possible
signal of his own allegiance to the primacy of militarism and war in American
culture. After all, upon retiring, General Austin promptly cashed in
by joining the board of directors of United Technologies from which he received
$1.4 million in “stock and other compensation” before it merged
with giant weapons-maker Raytheon and he ended up on the board of that company.
(He holds roughly $500,000
in Raytheon stock
, a nice supplement to his six-figure yearly military
pension.)

How better than selecting him as SecDef to ensure that the “military” and
the “industrial” remain wedded in that famed complex? America’s secretary
of defense is, of course, supposed to be a civilian, someone who
can exercise strong and independent oversight over America’s ever-growing
war complex, not a lifelong military officer and general to boot, as well
as an obvious war profiteer.

War Is Peace

As Quincy Institute President Andrew Bacevich so aptly put
it
, “many Americans have made their peace with endless war.” Within
America’s war culture, peace activists like Medea
Benjamin
and organizations like Veterans
for Peace
are seen as not just “radical,” but genuinely aberrant.
Meanwhile, an unquestioning acceptance of the fact that this country is now
eternally at war across significant parts of the planet is considered normal,
even respectable. Certainly, not something to put real time or thought
into considering.

As a result, warmongers like former Trump National Security Advisor John
Bolton are touted in some quarters as hard-headed
realists
. In seeing the world as a hostile place that Americans need to
(but somehow, almost 20 years later, can’t) dominate means their heads
are screwed on straight, unlike those screwy thinkers who advocate for peace.
But as Dorothy
Day
, the Catholic peace activist, once said: “Our problems stem from our
acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”

That Americans mostly refuse to see permanent war as filthy and rotten, or
to think much about it or the “defense” budget that goes with
it showcases the triumph of a broader war culture here. Whereas this
country’s profligate and prodigal military complex has given us stunning
failure after stunning failure overseas (just consider all those disastrous
efforts to win “hearts and minds” from Vietnam to Afghanistan
to Iraq and on and on), it has proved stunningly successful in winning —
or at least taming — hearts and minds in
the homeland
. How else to explain the way those trillion-dollar-plus
“national security” budgets are routinely rubber-stamped by Congress
with hardly a murmur of protest?

In the twenty-first century, Americans are suffering a form of cognitive
capture in which war has become the new normal. As an astute reader
at my blog, Bracing
Views
, put it: “Our desire to live without war is held in a stockade,
and every day that we wake up and walk out into the yard that understanding
is being broken down by the powerful monied elites.”

In America’s collective stockade of the mind, activism for peace is an aberration,
while acceptance of the war state is second nature. Small wonder that Biden’s
proposed cabinet and administration features so many neocon-style policymakers
who made their peace with war, whether in Iraq and Afghanistan or Libya and
Syria (Antony
Blinken
as secretary of state; Jake
Sullivan
as national security advisor; retired general Lloyd Austin as secretary
of defense; and Avril
Haines
as director of national intelligence). Biden’s hawkish picks avidly
place their faith in US military power. And they will be advising a new president,
who once supported war in Iraq himself and talks not of reducing “defense” spending
but of boosting
it
.

Perhaps you’ve noticed, in fact, how every president from George W. Bush
in 2001 on has been proud to pose at some point as a “wartime” president.
Perhaps you’ve noticed as well that this country can’t or won’t close
Gitmo, the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, flooded with prisoners
from the global war on terror beginning late in 2001, men who will likely
be imprisoned until death does us part.

Perhaps this is why the US government “tortured
some folks
,” as President Obama put it in 2014, and abused Iraqi prisoners
at Abu
Ghraib
in Iraq. (Avril Haines, Biden’s proposed national intelligence director,
once helped suppress
evidence of just such abuse and torture.) Perhaps this is why every president
starting with George W. Bush has unapologetically smited evildoers around the
world via robotic assassin
drones
. (Remember, the drone
assassination
of Iranian Major General Qasem Suleimani at Baghdad International
Airport by one Donald J. Trump?) Perhaps this is also why US bombing never seems
to stop and those wars never end, even when a president comes into office promising
that they will. After all, it’s so empowering to be a “wartime” president!

In his novel 1984, George Orwell put it simply enough when he coined
the slogan “war is peace” for his fictional dystopian society. Randolph Bourne
put it no less simply when, during World War I, he
explained
that “war is the health of the state.” Rosa Brooks, who
worked at the Pentagon, put it bluntly when she titled her 2016 book How
Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything
. What
we have in America today is warfare as welfare, a form of man-made disaster
capitalism
, profitable for a few at the expense of the many.

Say it again: We are all POWs now.

The Time I Met a Real POW

In the early 1990s, when I was a young captain in the US Air Force, I served
as an escort officer for Brigadier General Robinson
Risner
. It’s not too much to say that Risner is held in awe in the Air Force.
A skilled fighter pilot and Korean War ace, he was a colonel and on the cover
of Time magazine in 1965, just as the Vietnam War was ramping up, after
which he was shot down and became a POW. He later wrote The Passing of the
Night
, a harrowing account of the seven years he spent as a prisoner in
the “Hanoi Hilton,” the sardonic name American POWs gave North Vietnam’s Hoa
Lo Prison.

What sustained Risner through torture and those years of captivity was his
Christian faith and patriotism. I vividly recall a talk he gave at the
Air Force Academy about his experiences and how that faith of his had sustained
him. I’ve never heard a more vivid evocation of the spirit of duty,
honor, and country sustained by faith in a higher power. I was proud
to have a photo taken with General Risner, as we stood next to the trophy
named after him and annually awarded to the top graduate of the Air Force’s
Weapons
School
, the AF’s Top Gun, so to speak.

Risner was gracious and compelling, and I was humbled to meet a POW who’d endured
and overcome as much as he had. Yet, back then (to be honest), I never gave
a thought to his actions as a fighter pilot leading bombing missions during
Operation Rolling Thunder in Vietnam. Since the US government had chosen not
to officially declare war against North Vietnam, whether his missions were even
legal should have been open to question. Lacking such an official declaration,
one could argue that Risner and US POWs like him did not enjoy the legal protections
of the Geneva Convention. Using American terminology today, Risner might then
have been termed an “enemy combatant” to be held indefinitely, as
the US today holds captives at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, POWs who have little
hope of ever being released.

To your average American captured by US war culture, objections here are easy.
Of course, Risner’s bombing missions were legal. Of course, he deserved to be
recognized as a POW and treated decently. America never goes to war without
righteous cause, in this case the containment of Communism by any means short
of nuclear weapons. The North Vietnamese saw it differently, however, perhaps
because it was they who were being bludgeoned and flattened by US military power.

My point is neither to praise Risner nor to bury him. Rather, it’s
to bury war and the culture that breeds and then feeds on it. The more
Americans facilitate war (largely by ignoring it and so giving it our tacit
approval), the more Washington funds it, the more other people die because
of “our” wars and “our” weaponry, the more this country becomes a POW nation
writ large.

My Friend’s Button Again

Remember my friend’s button, the one that insisted POWs never have a nice
day? As a POW nation writ large, it should apply to all of us.
America won’t have a nice day again until it extricates itself from war in
all its manifestations. There will be no nice day until Congress stops
funding munitions makers and starts seeking peace and helping the sick and
poor. There will be no nice day until Americans hate war with all the
passion now saved for “patriotic” flag waving. There will be no nice
day until presidents bless peacemakers instead of beseeching God to protect
the troops
.

So, the next time you see a POW/MIA flag outside a federal building, don’t
dismiss it as a relic of America’s past. Think about its meaning and
relevance in an era of constant global warfare and colossal military spending.
Then, if you dare, ask yourself if you, too, are a POW of sorts — not
in the strictly legal sense that applies to formal militaries in declared
wars, but in the sense of this country being captured by war in all its death,
destruction, and despair. And then ask yourself, what does America have
to do, collectively, to break out of the POW camp in which it’s imprisoned
itself?

Upon that question hinges the future of the American republic.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter
and join us on Facebook.
Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel Frostlands

(the second in the Splinterlands series), 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
.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of
history, is a TomDispatch
regular
and a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN),
an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals.
His personal blog is Bracing
Views
.

Copyright 2021 William J. Astore

Read More