War Games

I watch a lot of sports, so I get to see many variations on three basic kinds of advertisements: car commercials, erectile-dysfunction medication commercials, and military propaganda.  This latter category breaks down into two sub-genres: recruitment ads explicitly financed by the U.S. military (“The few, the proud . . . “) and self-congratulatory spots by defense contractors like Boeing (“Helping protect America against . . . “).  The contractor ads are especially creepy; they look and sound like parodies out of Starship Troopers.

As a number of radical liberal theorists such as George Washington (in his 1796 Farewell Address) and General Dwight D. Eisenhower (in his Farewell Address, where he coins the term “military-industrial complex”) have argued, the establishment of giant standing armies runs directly, absolutely counter to the interests of a free republic.  A permanent military devours enormous amounts of money which could be spent elsewhere (say on silly stuff like schools and health care), concentrates power in the executive branch (and in America’s case, creates a fourth branch of government called the Department of Defense), and reinforces the idea that a nation’s identity is inseparable from its military culture and interests.  Consider that no person gets elected President of the United States without constantly praising the “integrity” and “sacrifices” and “nobility” of the armed forces; notice that for all his excellent left-of-center qualities, Barrack Obama will never, ever question the wisdom of spending more than half of the federal budget on the military.  $1.5 trillion last year.  Alone.  That’s trillion with a T.  Most of which is deficit-spending financed by China, Japan, and Saudi Arabia.  Even Obama’s newest Supreme-Court nominee, Elena Kagan, who is ostensibly a liberal, had to gush about how great the military is after conservatives attacked her for her opposition to military recruitment at Harvard.  Almost nobody in the American ruling class not named Kucinich will even mention the warnings of patriots like Washington and Eisenhower.

Now, I admire the individual bravery and professional dedication of soldiers.  (If you want a reason why, check out Frontline’s newest documentary, “The Wounded Platoon,” which airs this Tuesday on PBS.)  My grandfather, one of the kindest, most intelligent men I have ever known, was a two-star general in the National Guard.  But I do not think that soldiering is an inherently noble profession; in other words, I agree with General Washington.  The time when the American military existed to serve the Republic (instead of the other way around) is long past.  American political culture surrounds “our” troops with plenty of rhetoric about valor and sacrifice, but ultimately they exist to defend a narrow spectrum of imperialist and corporate interests, and they are generally treated as disposable goons, left to deal with their own physical and psychological agony once they’re discharged.

For decades, one of the most erudite, articulate critics of American militarism has been Chalmers Johnson.  Educated at Berkeley, Johnson’s academic specialty is geopolitical studies, with an emphasis on the Pacific Rim; he spent decades teaching at Berkeley and UC San Diego before his retirement (he’s now a UCSD Emeritus).  In addition to his astonishing knowledge of American military and political history, Johnson has two more great attributes: he isn’t a self-righteous twit who views the U.S. as entirely, invariably evil (like Noam Chomsky appears to), and he has a military background—he served in the Korean War and worked for the CIA in the 60s and 70s.  Johnson was a serious Cold Warrior.  But he was horrified by how the collapse of the Soviet Union did nothing to slow the growth of the U.S. defense budget, and he has since produced some of the best general-interest works on American neo-imperialism: among these are Blowback and The Sorrows of Empire.   The philosophical thread which connects all of his writings is that while modern democracies need adequate armies and must stand against psychotic anti-modern forces like Islamic fanaticism, it is absolutely insane that the U.S. has hundreds of military bases around the world (most of them left over from the Cold War), and that we spend so much money on, and devote so much political devotion to, the military.  We are still building new submarines and nuclear weapons (for instance).  Last time I checked, Osama Bin Laden didn’t have a navy, and even military analysts don’t think that ICBMs will do much to deter terrorists from seeking to build a rogue bomb.

Anyway, watch the above interview.  It’s about an hour long and will give you a clearer and more detailed summary of Johnson’s views than I am capable of writing.



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