Last weekend was the anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and while the organizer of that rally was denied a permit by the mostly dysfunctional Charlottesville city government for a reprise this year in Charlottesville, he was able to promote a rally in Washington, D.C., where it fizzled. Meanwhile, in Charlottesville, police employees showed up in force, 1,000 of them, in order to make up for last year when they stood by and did as little as possible to keep the two sides from fighting. Since the police employees had even less to do this year despite their greater numbers and show of macho force in riot gear, they contented themselves with bossing around peaceful, law-abiding citizens who wished to conduct business as usual on the downtown pedestrian mall, site of some last year’s conflicts.
Police employees power tripping at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in September 2009. Among the other tricked out military gear, note the desert camouflage trousers, surplus from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, being worn by servers and protectors in the green, leafy environs of home as they serve and protect the interests of the conservative 1%. Photo by katesheets.
The police appear to have no concept of reasonable proportion and common sense discretion which would permit them to gauge an appropriate middle ground in these civil conflicts. They are hammers, and to them almost everybody looks like nails. They are either busting heads, almost always of those on the left, or standing by idly and collecting overtime while the two sides in fascist and anti-fascist protests engage each other violently. It’s not hard to guess based on police conduct that most of them sympathize with protesters on the far right. No one impartial appears to be directing the police at these events. This is nothing new in American life, that the police would side with the most conservative portions of the citizenry against the left. The police slogan “To serve and protect” has always implied a narrow constituency. What’s all the more interesting then is that the supposedly liberal city government in Charlottesville, out of fear and a desperate desire to reclaim their reputation from last year’s debacle, deferred to local and state police organizations eager to impose for one weekend an authoritarian regime in an empty show of over-the-top policing.
At the end of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, which can be dated to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, there was much talk in the West of a “peace dividend” on account of the anticipated reduction in military spending. The dividend never amounted to anything as far as average Americans were concerned, particularly since the Gulf War came along a year later, and then through the 1990s the US involved itself in flash points around the globe in its self-appointed role as world police force. In the new century, the so-called War on Terror has preoccupied this country and dragged it into middle eastern quagmires ever since 2001. That peace dividend looks like it’s never going to show up.
Counting minor skirmishes and interventions, America has been in conflict with enemies foreign and domestic for most of its history. Always in the past after a major conflict, the military would draw down its personnel and weaponry and return to a reduced level that was considered the peacetime military norm, even if small conflicts were bound to flare up. Again after World War II, it appeared the armed forces would follow the pattern and draw down, and indeed they did for several years in the late 1940s. But then the Berlin Airlift happened, heightening tensions with the Soviet Union, and more or less beginning the Cold War. Shortly after that came the Korean War. The country has pretty well been on a war footing ever since, a condition President Eisenhower warned against in his 1961 farewell address when he spoke of the military-industrial complex.
From The Ladies’ Home Journal in 1948, an article in the magazine described the trials of a young family making ends meet. Here the father balances the family books while the mother irons clothes. No doubt they juggled income and expenses in the hundreds or thousands of dollars, not billions or trillions.
In a 2012 speech at the Democratic National Convention, President Obama anticipated a peace dividend from reductions in American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, a dividend he said he would use to pay down the national debt and put Americans back to work repairing and improving infrastructure at home. Like the Cold War peace dividend, the dividend that was supposed to follow from over a decade of middle eastern wars also proved illusory. For one thing, our enormous military spending, larger than the military budgets of the next eight biggest spenders combined, has been done with borrowed money. Claiming a reduction in military spending would yield a dividend from the balance is like a homeowner taking $20 out of the household budget meant for repayment of various debts and calling it a windfall. Not only will the homeowner have to repay the $20 next month, but he or she will have to come up with an additional $20 to make up for the shortfall.
The other thing about this country’s huge military is that some interested parties in the military and in the defense industry like to keep it sky high. That is what Eisenhower was warning us about in 1961. These are people who, while they may not like war exactly – when it comes to actual military service, for instance, a good many of them seem to have other priorities – nonetheless have acquired a taste for the profits and power of the military-industrial complex. They are the friends of Halliburton and Blackwater, and they are in high places. They are the people who will see to it a peace dividend never gets beyond their own sticky fingers into the wallets of the American people who have paid for all their boondoggles.
From Mel Brooks’s 1974 film Blazing Saddles, with Harvey Korman and Robyn Hilton, and Mel Brooks himself as the Governor, this scene could just as well be depicting activities in the modern day Oval Office as in a fictional governor’s office in 1874. Warning: foul language.
There will not be enough money in the federal budget for fixing the nation’s infrastructure, moreover bringing it up to 21st century standards, until the obscene amounts spent on the military-industrial complex are drastically reduced. There will not be enough money for health care, for public education, for Social Security, for fighting climate change by ditching the fossil fuel industry in favor of renewable energy, for doing all the things we want to do to improve our society as a whole, and not merely improve the fortunes of the oligarchy, if we do not come to our senses regarding our budget for interfering around the world and in some unintended ways making it a more dangerous place. Throwing all that borrowed money into the war machine for the past 70 years has bought us a grand house, with a grand mortgage to match, and meanwhile the termites have been busy at the foundations.
In Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 movie Full Metal Jacket, two marines engage in an ironic “John Wayne” face-off. Wayne’s chickenhawkish stances werewell-known and widely held in contempt by combat veterans fromWorld War II to Vietnam. Warning: foul language.
America’s wars continue with no end in sight, from one presidential administration to the next. One proposal to curtail the corporate oligarchy’s military adventurism is to bring back the military draft or to institute Universal National Service, the idea being that if a greater percentage of the population has a personal stake in foreign policy then they will be more likely to make their preferences known to their leaders, and people with a personal stake are less likely to want more war. The oligarchy knows this, too, as it’s a lesson they learned from an aroused public during the Vietnam War and are unlikely to want repeated if the public reawakens.
Since the draft ended in 1973, the per capita percentage of the population serving in the military has steadily declined, while the number of American military interventions overseas has drastically increased. Linking the two trends could be coincidental, but it’s worth considering that in the 40 years from 1933 to 1973, in most of which there was a draft, the US sent the military abroad on 27 occasions, and in the 40 years from 1974 to 2014 the US sent the military on 175 different foreign interventions. Has the world really become 6.5 times more dangerous since 1973? Or is it that the US has taken on in earnest the burden and profits of empire and the role of world policeman, putting out small fires everywhere, many times at the behest of corporate interests?
I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.
― Marine Major General (Retired) Smedley Butler, writing in the
Socialist newspaper Common Sense in 1935.
The 1994 Robert Zemeckis movie Forrest Gump is an excellent portrayal of the diversity of experience awaiting Vietnam era draftees, though of course most of them did not want to be there. Warning: foul language.
The majority of Americans catch the news about these numerous foreign conflicts as they go about their daily business, and because they don’t know anyone in the military and didn’t serve themselves, the news pretty much goes in one ear and out the other. Who can get agitated or even interested about what’s happening in Kosovo or Libya or Yemen or the Horn of Africa, wherever that is? Afghanistan and Iraq, oh yeah, are those still dragging on? Are we going into Syria now, too? And so these busy Americans go on with their lives, paying their taxes and going shopping, surprised to learn that when the US deploys Predator drones to these foreign hot spots, the controllers of the deadly drones sit in air-conditioned trailers halfway around the world in Nevada or Germany. It’s the New Age, alright, a deadly video game.
Or so we might choose to believe. As technocratic and bloodless as the military brass and the politicians may try to make modern war seem in order to make it more palatable for the general public, it will always nevertheless be a nasty mess both physically and morally. They don’t want to show that part, though; they learned that lesson from Vietnam as well. Rah-rah Hollywood movies are not the answer to getting Americans to come to terms with their current situation in world politics. Far from it. There are far too many chickenhawks making movies in Hollywood and making policy in Washington to serve anything but the basest emotions of too many Americans, the “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots” among them, who are stirred to cheer movies glorifying war and the macho posturing of Supreme Leader. As long as they reflexively say “Thank you for your service” to a service member or veteran when they encounter one, they’re covered. Aren’t they?
An early scene in Full Metal Jacket depicts Marine boot camp in a less lighthearted vein than the boot camp of Forrest Gump. Some of that canbe attributed to the differences between the Marines and the Army, and some to the aims of the two films. Nonetheless, some of the drill sergeant’s insults will ring bells in the dark sense of humor shared by many veterans, an emotion Kubrick effectively turns inside out at the end of the scene. Warning: foul language, of course.