War and Perpetual Adolescence
The urgency I feel isn’t any longer to stop a particular war but to interrupt endless war: to interrupt the narrowly focused geopolitical conversation, conveyed to us over and over by media stenographers, in which lethal intervention — wherever — is always the first and only choice. The uncertainty is never a matter of “if.” It’s only a matter of “when.”
For instance: “The West needs to bolster deterrence in Ukraine by raising the risks and costs to Russia of any renewed major offensive. That requires providing direct military assistance — in far larger amounts than provided to date and including lethal defensive arms.”
The quote, which appeared in the New York Times, is from a recently issued report signed by “eight former senior American officials.” It comes with an assumed certainty and seemingly impenetrable authority. “The report was issued jointly by the Atlantic Council, the Brookings Institution and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.” One of the insiders who put her name on it was Michèle A. Flournoy, “a former senior Pentagon official who is a leading candidate to serve as defense secretary if Hillary Rodham Clinton is elected president.”
And that’s that. It’s all so pristine and scientific-seeming. Never are the consequences of military action discussed, alluded to or acknowledged in the mainstream media, even though the wreckage of our wars is all around us. That doesn’t matter because grotesque, medieval hostility — beheadings, immolation — emerge from the wreckage. Unlike America’s impersonal, high-tech and regrettably necessary killing, our enemies perpetrate Evil Itself. The over-the-top drama of what they do continually supplants any motivation we have to engage in political self-examination. Fear rules, but fortunately we have the technology and the bottomless budget to defend ourselves.
“What’s truly ‘exceptional’ in twenty-first-century America is any articulated vision of what a land at peace with itself and other nations might be like,” William J. Astore, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, wrote recently at TomDispatch.com. “Instead, war, backed by a diet of fear, is the backdrop against which the young have grown to adulthood. It’s the background noise of their world.”
Astore, in his excellent essay called “War Is the New Normal,” offered a number of reasons why militarism has cleared any challenging viewpoint from the corridors of American power. The theory and practice of peace — humanity’s only hope for a viable future — is alive and well. Embracing it in some way, recognizing the need to suppress a tantrum, acknowledge someone else’s humanity and allay short-term desires for the sake of the long-term good, is every child’s transition into adulthood. It’s called growing up. But somehow we’re failing to do so politically; indeed, we seem to be moving backwards.
I say this because I’ve seen and felt it happening in my own lifetime. While the USA has always been a warrior culture, built on a foundation of conquest and exploitation, that’s only been part of the picture. Movements of liberation and the expansion of the mantle of humanity have always been a part of the social—and political — picture as well, but today they seem less so than I can remember. Militarism, in increasingly juvenile intensity, has been getting, it seems, free rein. Why?
Reason number one, according to Astore’s analysis, is “the privatization of war”: its takeover by corporate America. There was a time when “war profiteer” was an epithet, a name for someone who would sully national ideals to make a profit on the mobilization for war. There was also a time when people opposed, in large, vocal numbers, the commercialization of Christmas. In both cases, the old idealism has been poisoned by money.
Here’s how Barbara Ehrenreich puts it in her book Blood Rites: “Meanwhile, war has dug itself into economic systems, where it offers a livelihood to millions, rather than to just a handful of craftsmen and professional soldiers. It has lodged in our souls as a kind of religion, a quick tonic for political malaise and a bracing antidote to the moral torpor of consumerist, market-driven cultures.”
Commercialism, as an end in itself, has no interest in what’s good for us or, even less so, what’s good for the future. Like cancer, it destroys its host. What we need to survive on this planet is not a global defense budget that eclipses every other human need.
Astore’s second reason for our state of endless war flows from the first: “the embrace of the national security state by both major parties.” This is a symptom, of course, as well as a cause. It’s also an indication that our democracy, at least at the national level, has gone the way of Christmas. We have a democracy-for-profit, which means that Barack Obama, elected on an enormous — indeed, global — peace mandate, has proceeded through his presidency as Bush Lite, modifying but perpetuating our state of endless war. Understanding peace may be a prerequisite for adulthood, but politically we’re caught in perpetual adolescence.
The prime requirement of war is “an enemy.” And the first thing we do when we’re at war is dehumanize that enemy. And as long as we’re at war, that enemy must stay dehumanized, which explains the shocking weirdness, outed last month, of the behavior of North Miami Beach’s police department — acting as a brigade on our war’s domestic front — which was caught using mugshots of real people (men of color, of course) as shooting range targets.
It’s all part of the endless war. This particular incident was still publicly shocking, fortunately, and the city council was humiliated into banning the practice when clergy and others from around the country began posting pictures of themselves on Facebook with the hashtag #UseMeInstead.
And it worked: conversation interrupted. I wish I knew how we could stop dehumanization practices just as effectively when we commit them beyond our own borders.