The Chalice of War
Recent events with respect to our so-called enemies abroad, including Donald Trump’s
- fruitless, impeachable knee-jerk bombing of Syria earlier this year, an act whose legal justifications rival the effectiveness and stated objectives in vacuousness,
- inflammatory posturing toward Iran in an incredibly dangerous perpetuation of Washington’s Iranian foreign policy over the past thirty years, and
- saber-rattling against North Korea as tensions escalate, virtually ignoring long proposed nuclear freeze proposals articulated by Noam Chomsky, proposals requiring the impossible act of American military retreat in that piece of the world,
underscore the precarious position in which we find ourselves in our 200,000 year run on this planet. In the midst of these tumultuous times, there exists a specter looming over virtually all mainstream discussion, so far out of mind as to conjure moronic climate change denialism, differing in that most Americans, whether convinced of the overwhelming scientific evidence or not, are at least aware of the debate. The bias should seem clear, as Trump’s illegal attack on Syria should indicate : articulate opinion virtually fell into lockstep admiration of Trump, for example, the New York Times remarked,
in launching a military strike
just 77 days into his
Trump has the opportunity, but
hardly a guarantee, to change
the perception of disarray in
Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept pointed out this and many other instances of elite media reversal on Trump the instant bombs begin falling. There exists a chalice of war, and Americans have been drinking deeply of it since the second world war; the mindset is pervasive, infiltrating our holidays, movies, video games, and most state-sanctioned celebrations of patriotism, whatever that actually happens to be. Believe it or not, it hasn’t always been this way. And there are a few voices rising above the rest to remind us.
David Swanson : Today’s Eugene Debs
I first encountered David Swanson’s works in the early days of George W. Bush’s warring administration. I had learned in college about the myriad military misadventures of American presidents, including
- Harry S Truman’s illegal war of aggression in Korea, events out of which the brutal North Korean regime emerged,
- Dwight D. Eisenhower’s acts of aggression in Guatemala to combat nationalism,
- John F. Kennedy’s raving mad stance toward Cuba (to be discussed in an upcoming article in The Spanish Pearl series), and aggressive war against South Vietnam,
- Lyndon Johnson’s lying about the Gulf of Tonkin incident to promote war in Vietnam and support of Israel’s illegal invasion of Lebanon,
- Richard M. Nixon’s aggressive wars in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, as well as the overthrow of Salvator Allende in Chile on September 11, 1973, the first so-called “9/11”,
- James E. Carter’s support of Indonesian dictator Suharto in committing genocide against the East Timorese,
- Ronald M. Reagan’s invasions of Grenada (a tiny defenseless island nation), bombing of Libya, drug runs in Columbia, war-making in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and propping up of Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein as a shield against Soviet influence in Iran,
- George H.W. Bush’s invasion of Panama and escalation of the Gulf War,
- William J. Clinton’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 despite warnings of heavy casualties among fleeing refugees,
- George W. Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, the latter of which Chomsky labels the supreme crime of the 21st century, and
- Barack Obama’s international drone assassination campaign, killing perhaps thousands of civilians in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and Libya,
and the list could include crimes committed before 1945, though we’d require another article. Suffice it to say that George Washington’s extermination of the Iroquois, Andrew Jackson’s mass murder of natives, destruction of native food sources by Ulysses S Grant, and the invasion and occupation of the northern half of Mexico by James K. Polk are but a few instances in the legacy of bloodlust the Europeans bore and continue to bear in conquering the western hemisphere. We’ve mentioned the Spanish American War more recently as a light case study, and with this large body of historical evidence, it seems pretty clear another approach is warranted, especially when considered with respect to the forecast of virtually every credible intelligence agency in the world : violence generates rather than diminishes the threat of what we like to think of as terrorism.
David Swanson has long argued that not only is there an alternative to war, there is no alternative to peace. A modern day Eugene Debs, this philosopher and activist has traveled the nation and the world to promote an ideology and dialog badly lacking in elite support. Of interest in this article is his 2013 book War No More : The Case for Abolition. In it, Swanson adeptly confronts many of the persistent myths, including the inevitability of perpetual war, the humanitarian war, the defensive war, the stabilizing war, and the like. He also explains, quite effectively, the post-war shift of American culture in his earlier work War Is A Lie.
A Culture Drunk on War
Long before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Americans often were only very reluctantly conscripted into battle to fight for elite interests, as discussed earlier in the case of the Spanish American War. We know now that desertion and reluctance to fire weapons at other human beings resulted in colossal ammunition waste in most of the wars through the twentieth century. The psychology is simple, Swanson explains :
[m]ost human or primate
or mammalian conflicts
within a species involve
threats and bluffs and
War is unnatural, he argues, citing further evidence that the grooves left in early human skeletal remains are bite marks from the large land dwelling predators we’ve since extinguished rather than battle scars from tribal skirmishes. This in fact echoes earlier commentary on the most native violence experienced by Columbus in his expedition : light sparring with sticks and the like, only very rarely resulting in serious injury. The conquistadors’ violence wrought upon the natives was something else entirely.
In any case, Swanson remarks that since the second world war, the military has become increasingly efficient in indoctrinating soldiers to kill. A parallel public relations program has glorified war in film, print, and now video games, often with heavy consultation from weapon manufacturers and military personnel. One need only look at the preponderance of blockbuster films these days to experience the influence. Further still, military recruiters routinely lie and glorify the military way of life, enticing the poor with a phony carrot rather than the stick of the draft in earlier wars. As before, the poor fight and die while elites shield themselves from the draft, such as
- George W. Bush’s convenient station in the national guard,
- Rush Limbaugh’s cyst on his hind quarters,
- Bill Clinton’s conscientious objection toward fighting but not toward launching weapons later as president,
- Pat Robertson’s political influence in avoiding Korean duty, something the 88 year-old hatemonger still can rectify thanks to “God’s” president Trump angling for war with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,
- Ronald Reagan’s inability to fight in World War II, so, as usual, he played troops in the movies,
- John Wayne’s penchant for supporting nationalist military adventures, despite never doing any of the fighting himself, and of course
- Donald Trump’s bone spurs shielding him from service while he pranced about the tennis court in ivy league university.
None of this should come as a surprise, as only a small percentage of human beings can truly stomach killing others. It’s large enough that in our population we routinely hear of such violence, but, as Swanson often suggests with rhetorically surgical precision, imagine if the news stations spent as much time on nonviolence as they do violence.
Swanson helped me begin to identify the tremendous propaganda toward state violence after I read his comprehensive 2010 book War is a Lie; I had noticed in recent years, something he systematically demonstrates in his works, that a large fraction of cinema previews included a vast array of military tools, soldiers, and their deployment to the “battlefield,” a term Swanson very cleverly disabuses as an archaicism. He points out that virtually every popular video game on the market features extreme amounts of gun violence and murder; though I am indeed a great fan of the game Skyrim, virtually anyone paying attention to the gameplay mechanics should notice that both men and mer would face imminent extinction with the pervasive, unremitting violence everywhere. Skyrim isn’t alone, as the most popular video games these days exalt wholesale violence, enabling a broad range of sociopathic choices. If a player kills virtually all citizens of the realm, who would grow the food, tend the livestock, write the books, etc.? More broadly, one can note that almost all the holidays we observe in America are tied to violent acts, including, ironically, Easter, Thanksgiving, and the whole of Armistice Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and the like. Our national anthem celebrates the violence of the Revolutionary War as a boon for freedom, despite the fact that life for 95% of colonists and virtually all natives, slaves, and women changed or worsened under the new management.
In any case, Swanson points out that dissidents are labeled derisively “anti-American” unless they blindly support ongoing wars under the mantra “support the troops,” even after elite sectors themselves disavow wars as unwinnable, strategic blunders. Chomsky correctly points out that America is the only non-totalitarian state where such a notion of “anti-state” exists; Germans opposing Angela Merkel would never be described idiotically as “anti-German”.
Moreover, Swanson strongly argues the malignant effects of war on troops, rendering the catechismic “support our troops” phrase all the more ridiculous : we must continue the killing to honor the dead, lest we savage their memory. I’ve witnessed dear friends and family thank troops publicly for their service, despite our military being the basis for human sacrifice : eighteen year-old boys must go die in some foreign land so we can ward off the undefinable, largely imaginary evil forces of tyranny, much like ancient cultures sacrificed humans to appease the gods of harvest.
I’m familiar with many mental health professionals who can confirm the extremely harmful effect of war service on human beings; post-traumatic stress disorder, coupled with loss of limbs, eyes, hearing, and the like mar not just our own soldiers, the only people elite sectors depict as “people,” but wreck nation after nation, killing millions and driving millions more into exile, prostitution, and violence.
The drone strikes themselves have raised a new generation of terrorists; case in point is Farea al-Muslimi, a young Yemeni student who spread good tidings about America back to his village until it was attacked by drones to kill an unarmed man accused of terrorism. Instantly, a village hates the United States, despite the ease of placing the suspect in custody rather than destroying parts of their village and killing civilians. This story isn’t unique, and it takes genius not to recognize how these policies further imperil both innocents and ourselves.
Even the non-partisan Brookings Institute recently warned that Trump may have the means, militarily or otherwise, (but not necessarily the mind) to finally
think seriously about
ending North Korea’s
nuclear ambitions by
creating a new order
in Northeast Asia.
Consider this in light of Chomsky’s aforementioned comments from a Democracy Now interview in April :
no matter what attack it
is, even a nuclear attack,
would unleash massive
artillery bombardment of
Seoul, which is the biggest
city in South Korea, right
near the border, which
would wipe it out, including
plenty of American troops.
That doesn’t—I mean, I’m no
technical expert, but as far
as I can—as I read and can
see, there’s no defense
In other words, stray too far into that dark place in which Kim Jung Un feels no escape, and the human cost could be tremendous. Is there an alternative? One need only read history, a sample of which I’ve written here, to know that America typically preaches peace and diplomacy, yet we maintain self-proclaimed nuclear first strike power, occupy over 800 military bases in 80 foreign countries as reported by The Nation in 2015, and have committed the supreme crime of aggressive war innumerable times just since the second world war, generally arguing publicly the desire to sue for peace, to supplicate the needy in humanitarian crises, or, earlier on, simply saying nothing.
Freedom isn’t Free, But War Won’t Buy It
It turns out that war fails to improve our freedom, as we’ve argued repeatedly here echoing the writings of Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Glenn Greenwald, and Amy Goodman : dedicated resistance and a cohesive, powerful labor movement have so far proved to be sufficient, if not essential to the civility and freedom we enjoy in the modern era. Swanson argues, alongside them, that war historically always has the opposite effect, reducing freedom while fomenting unrest and division. One need only look at the various wars to discover that many dissenters have gone to jail, including Swanson’s historical doppelganger Eugene Debs; Debs encouraged antiwar speech during World War I. War resisters during the Revolutionary War faced violence, confiscation of property, murder, and expulsion to Canada.
During World War II, the government imprisoned Japanese and German Americans. My grandparents worked at Camp Howze, a POW camp near my hometown of Gainesville, Texas. Woodrow Wilson argued during World War I that “disloyal” dissidents
had sacrificed their
right to civil liberties.
We can certainly recall suppression of resistance to Vietnam, and the immediate passage of the fascist PATRIOT Act upon the second 9/11. The point is, not only does freedom not flourish under war, Swanson argues that it cannot flourish. Learning the former must precede the latter, and Swanson articulates a very strong argument for both. So what of the good wars?
Apologists for War
Most rational Americans have come to believe that war is primarily a tool for control. During the Vietnam and Korean Wars, Americans were conscripted to fight for what the Pentagon Papers revealed to be control of the “tin, oil, and rubber“, among other economic objectives. The Project for a New American Century (PNAC), mentioned in earlier posts, was a late twentieth century neo-conservative think tank whose manifesto stumps for conquering Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Iran in order to secure American interests in the region. Swanson raises the intriguing coincidences of both Iraqi and Libyan leadership electing to deny the dollar preeminence in oil purchases, Hussein opting for the euro and Gaddafi the gold dinar, both immediately preceding our violent intervention; certainly intelligence agencies in America and elsewhere knew very well Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction remaining. Lost in this is that Saddam offered to exile himself, handing Iraq over to NATO provided he could abscond with one billion dollars; considering the trillion dollars the war has cost, wouldn’t that have made more sense?
Swanson reminds us of Eisenhower’s admonishment of the rise of the military industrial complex, a largely unaccountable cadre of business and military interests hell-bent on self-sustainment in the face of an increasingly peaceful world. Ironically, as Swanson points out, war doesn’t make market sense, as it would be more efficient to spend the money on renewable energy, infrastructure, education, health, and the like, even aside from the pesky problem of human life.
In any case, PNAC’s manifesto laments that we must
fight and decisively
win multiple, simultaneous
to preserve the so-called “Pax Americana”, conceding that the American public no longer will tolerate protracted wars. Despite years of carefully composed propaganda and rhetoric, the political elites have yet to convince the public that war with Iran is necessary. Trump’s wild approach may prove fatal in this instance, as he, like power-mad elites preceding him, fumes when “enemy” nations comply with sanctions. Nonetheless this reluctance speaks to the increased civility of society.
On the other hand, Americans continue to support war mythology with the firm belief that at least in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and World War II, we defeated tyranny, slavery, and fascism, respectively. We’ve already addressed the farce that is the first of the three above. The Civil War was easily preventable through diplomatic means, though the times were different. Rather obviously, however, the union states simply could have attempted to purchase the slaves, perhaps to the tune of one billion dollars, as opposed to spending three billion to destroy countless cities and leave a buyer cultural resentment still harming us today (in an upcoming article, I’ll try to address the notion of white privilege and the legacy of slavery.) If the north had really wanted a peaceful settlement, it could have permitted secession and encouraged slaves to flee into the free states. The dirty secret is that the north no more wanted freed slaves than did the south. In any case, Swanson debunks these wars with ease, leaving us with the last ace of the warmonger : the second world war.
Swanson Takes Down the “Good War”
For brevity, I’ll leave most of Swanson’s arguments about the so-called “good war” to the reader. But suffice it to say that America was already in the war long before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, actively cutting off supply lines and providing weapons and equipment to the European allies. Truman famously quipped on the Senate floor that we should
help the Russians when
the Germans are winning
and the Germans when
the Russians are
winning[... s]o each
may kill off as many
as possible of the other.
Are these the words of a man pursuing peace and freedom?
Swanson further argues means of preventing Hitler’s rise through a less ridiculous settlement than the Treaty of Versailles at the conclusion of the first world war, deescalation of his militarism through discussion and diplomacy, and rescue of the Jewish refugees initially expelled from Hitler’s caustic, totalitarian empire. Instead, we, along with Britain and France, isolated Germany, refused to aid the refugees, and in our case sold weapons to Britain and France while strengthening the Pacific navy, cutting off Japanese supplies in Manchuria, and conducting military exercises off the coast of Japan. Americans actually held a rather favorable view of Hitler, as anti-Semitism was rampant among elite sectors here; both Joseph Kennedy and Prescott Bush, fathers of presidents-to-be, either held business dealings with or openly supported the Nazis even after America officially entered the war. Fanta became Coca-Cola’s means of remaining in Germany, and Henry Ford placed a portrait of Hitler on his desk. In fact, when Confessions of a Nazi Spy, a thriller starring Edward G. Robinson, premiered in Milwaukee, pro-Nazis burned the theater to the ground; even the far right Senators of the day wished to investigate Robinson and the film as Jewish propaganda angling for American entry into the war.
Enshrining the Holocaust only became important to the American political class with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1967, an unsolicited but helpful gesture in advancing American hegemony. Though there’s much to add, suffice to say the one good war killed over seventy million people, or equivalently twenty percent of our current population. Was that really necessary? We touched on the atomic bombs dropped in 1945 at the conclusion of the war. Are we better off for creating them?
A Great Read
Like all of David Swanson’s books and articles I’ve read, he powerfully confronts the folly of pro-war propaganda and the arguments, lofty or low-brow, for the perpetuation of war. He eloquently rearranges the pieces of the puzzle to expose the idiocy of the arguments advanced by the state in support of violence, such as this gem with respect to our government offering protection to people facing chemical warfare :
[k]illing people to
prevent their being
killed with the wrong
kind of weapons is a
policy that must come
out of some sickness
[... c]all it Pre-
I highly recommend this and his other works, as he, like the great activists before him, tells the truth. His words are more prescient than ever before as we confront the problems of the twenty-first century.