Tomdispatch – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Wed, 21 Apr 2021 05:45:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.17 Making Sense of a Viral Military: The Pentagon’s Flawed Response to the Pandemic https://www.juancole.com/2021/04/military-pentagons-response.html Fri, 16 Apr 2021 04:01:31 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=197256 By Andrea Mazzarino | –

( Tomdispatch.com) – Herd immunity? Don’t count on it. Not if that “herd” is the U.S. military.

According to news reports, at least a third of active-duty military personnel or those in the National Guard have opted out of getting the coronavirus vaccine. That figure, by the way, doesn’t even include American troops stationed around the world, many of whom have yet to be offered the chance to be vaccinated. As a Navy spouse whose husband has moved to five separate U.S. duty stations in the decade we’ve been together, one thing is hard for me to imagine: an administration pledging to do everything it can to beat this pandemic has stopped short of using its executive powers to ensure that our 2.3 million armed forces members are all vaccinated.

From the point of view of those in the military refusing the vaccine, there’s a simple reality (or perhaps I mean surreality) to this situation. There’s so much disinformation about Covid-19 and the vaccination programs meant to deal with it floating around, particularly in the world of social media, that no one should be surprised that a third of the military here has flatly refused the shots. Even public efforts of the armed forces to dispel myths about the vaccine have not made a dent in these figures. For example, the decision of Army commanders at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to develop a local podcast on the subject and create what they call “vaccine ambassadors” in their own ranks have still left them facing an uphill battle. (Vaccine acceptance at that base was, as of February, below 50%.)

And note as well that vaccination rates are lowest among young soldiers. Sadly enough, in the midst of this country’s incipient fourth wave of the disease, it’s younger people who are increasingly catching it. Keep in mind that the military is disproportionately made up of evangelical Christians, a population among whom vaccine skepticism and resistance are already rampant. And take my word for it, much of the toxic rhetoric floating around American social media on such subjects is already seeping into the military’s command culture as well.

In the communities where my husband and I have worked since the pandemic hit these shores, for example, I’ve met one commander who believes that God, not a vaccine, will decide whether he lives or dies. Another young officer I ran into believes that the risk of side effects from such vaccines outweighs any risk from the virus itself. Such attitudes are also sweeping into the larger military community, which is why a military spouse and mother assured me that our immune system is capable of beating the virus, no vaccine needed.

Reactions like theirs suggest how hard it will be, not just in the military, but in the country at large, to achieve “herd immunity.” Sadly, despite the quarantining of those who test positive for the coronavirus, there has been far less action within the military (as in American society at large) to contain those who could become vectors for the disease than would be desirable, though it’s long been known that asymptomatic spread is a significant contributor to the pandemic.

What stuns me as a military spouse is how little the Pentagon — a distinctly top-down organization that operates by command, not wish — is doing about the problem of troops opting out of being vaccinated. Why isn’t Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin more forcefully denouncing those within the military community who discourage vaccination and don’t get vaccinated themselves? What better use of his public position than to protect the lives of those troops being offered the vaccine, as well as those military personnel and their families who, as yet, have no access to such shots, and civilians still vulnerable to the virus in military communities around the world? Why isn’t every commander photographing himself or herself getting a needle in the arm?

It’s true that the military can’t order troops to be vaccinated (as with many other vaccines) because the Federal Drug Administration has not yet officially “approved” any of the Covid-19 vaccines except under an “emergency-use authorization.” And despite calls to do so by some Democratic lawmakers, President Biden has not made such shots mandatory for all military members and seems reluctant to do so in the future.

However, as Nation journalist Andrew McCormick has explained, there are many things the military could still do (but isn’t doing) until such a moment arrives. These include offering paid time off, financial bonuses, and upgrades in military healthcare plans as incentives to those willing to get vaccinated. So far, there’s no evidence that the Pentagon (which I reached out to on the subject without response) is willing to move in such a direction. Sadly, it seems that the health of our military, their families, and the communities they live and serve in just isn’t the foremost concern of either the high command or an administration that in other areas has been impressive in its response to the pandemic.

Vaccine Passports? Not in This Military

Under such circumstances, the U.S. military, whose members have already sustained hundreds of thousands of cases of Covid-19, poses an ongoing threat not just to its own communities or Americans more generally, but to the world. It could lend a hand elsewhere in spreading a deadly virus that has to date killed more than 560,000 Americans and 2.9 million other people around the world.

Lack of testing and contact tracing make it impossible to tell just how big a role the military already plays in spreading the virus, but hundreds of thousands of service members and those associated with them, including family members and contractors, have gotten it. By one count, despite the youth and health of the military, about 0.9% of total recorded U.S. coronavirus cases to date are among its members, its contractors, or its dependent family members — a military community that comprises roughly .7% of the population. That means it’s definitely pulling its weight when it comes to contributing to recorded cases around the country.


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Such cases and deaths among the troops (and those associated with them) have been due in no small part to the Department of Defense’s negligence in keeping its own personnel safe from the virus. For that, you can blame, at least in part, sloppy, piecemeal safety protocols and the continued circulation of troops from one station to another around the country and the world. It’s not even clear whether the 3,000 military personnel assigned to vaccinate American civilians at hundreds of sites globally have themselves received the vaccine.

Consider it an irony, then, that the military’s insistence on training its troops to fill a variety of roles — in other words, on rotating them through various garrisons and jobs during their careers — is meant to prepare them for a situation in which national security threats might not allow that sort of circulation to continue. With more than half a million Americans already dead from an easy-to-spread disease (more than the dead from both world wars, Vietnam, and the 9/11 attacks combined), what better moment than this to make sure that the troops stay put for a while? Why not order that each member of the armed forces assigned to rotate among duty stations have a vaccine passport? But no such luck. Not in this military. Not now.

And that’s not all. In many cases, there is no vaccine available even for service members stationed at bases overseas who actually want to be vaccinated. For example, at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where nearly 60,000 troops and their families are currently stationed, only key personnel like medical workers and food staff have received vaccinations so far. In some cases, even where first doses have been administered, second doses are simply not available. Only about 20% of the U.S. forces stationed in South Korea, a country known for its successful management of the virus, had been vaccinated by mid-March.

At a time when the United States has achieved an average rate of three million inoculations daily and more than a third of U.S. adults have already received at least one shot, lack of military access should be (but isn’t) considered shameful.

And keep in mind that the dangers of a significantly unvaccinated military are high. Given their jobs and the proximity of their homes to U.S. military installations, a striking number of people have little choice but to come in contact with American military personnel. I’m thinking now of the hundreds of millions of civilians living in the many countries where the United States military now operates, often from significant-sized military bases. When it comes to the dangers of Covid-19 spreading, add in Americans living in close proximity to the 440 military bases in this country.

In nations where the virus remains uncontained, unvaccinated American troops are both threatened and threatening. Afghanistan and Iraq, where the United States has been at war for the better part of two decades, are no exceptions. As elsewhere, it’s unclear how many of the approximately 6,000 U.S. troops (and thousands of American contractors attached to that military) still stationed in those countries are vaccinated.

My Life in Pandemic America

Now, let me turn to my own family. My husband is a naval officer and we’re privileged. We have three graduate degrees between us and dual incomes. I can do most of my job as a clinical social worker serving people from the armed forces and war-afflicted countries at home. My husband recently transferred from a remarkably pandemic-exposed Pentagon to a civilian agency post where he can also largely work from home (except — sigh — when someone from the Pentagon must be greeted in person). We’ve been lucky to be able to juggle the work and childcare demands of this pandemic period largely from the safety of our rural home. We’re both vaccinated as well.

And yet, we’re worried. For his job, my husband has had to calculate the risk to life of countless real and potential military catastrophes. He’s also focused professionally on damage control when war-traumatized troops drive drunk, beat their wives, or abuse their children. He carries with him memories and fears of violence, most of it from within the armed forces. Given the unnecessary threats to life and limb he’s witnessed through his work, he’s vigilant about our family not being exposed any more than necessary to the threat of Covid-19.

All of this means that we’ve remained relatively isolated in our new home. In this pandemic year-plus, we haven’t attended events in the community, eaten in restaurants, gone to friends’ houses for dinner, or traveled at all. And yes, we’re lucky because we’re so untypical of most of our military. With so much at stake, its leadership needs to focus on containing the virus within its ranks in a way it simply hasn’t, particularly with more contagious variants of the disease spreading rapidly.

I wish that President Biden would listen to the small group of lawmakers currently pressing his administration for greater safety within the military and for him to use his executive powers to mandate vaccinations among the troops. I wish he would devote as much effort and time to ensuring that military bases carried out their vaccination efforts in a competent and accountable manner, as his administration has in so many civilian locales throughout this country.

Imagine what it would mean for troops and families to pose no more than a negligible risk when it comes to the transmission of this virus. At least that would allow us to check off one major risk to health and life on the list of our mounting human rights abuses as a country and to go back to the long project of reckoning with the costs of endless armed conflict around the world.

Copyright 2021 Andrea Mazzarino

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.

Andrea Mazzarino, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded Brown University’s Costs of War Project. She has held various clinical, research, and advocacy positions, including at a Veterans Affairs PTSD Outpatient Clinic, with Human Rights Watch, and at a community mental health agency. She is the co-editor of War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Has the Far Right infiltrated the US Armed Forces? https://www.juancole.com/2021/04/right-infiltrated-forces.html Wed, 07 Apr 2021 04:01:41 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=197088 By Nan Levinson | –

( Tomdispatch.com ) – It was around noon and I was texting a friend about who-knows-what when I added, almost as an afterthought: “tho they seem to be invading the Capitol at the mo.” I wasn’t faintly as blasé as that may sound on January 6th, especially when it became ever clearer who “they” were and what they were doing. Five people would die due to that assault on the Capitol building, including a police officer, and two more would commit suicide in the wake of the event. One hundred forty police would be wounded (lost eye, heart attack, cracked ribs, smashed spinal disks, concussions) and the collateral damage would be hard even to tote up.

I’m not particularly sentimental about anyone-can-grow-up-to-be-president and all that — in 2017, anyone did — but damn! This was democracy under actual, not rhetorical, attack.

As the list of people charged in connection with that insurrection rose, ways of analyzing their possible motivations grew ever more creative: at least nine of the rioters who broke into the Capitol had a history of violence against women; almost 60% had had money troubles; and above all, 50, or 14.5%, of the 356 people arrested at last count, had military connections, as did the woman killed by a policeman that day. (Veterans and active-duty personnel account for 7.5% of the U.S. population.) More than a fifth of the arrested veterans have been charged with “conspiracy.”

The need to understand why an estimated 800 people ransacked the Capitol, attacked the police, and threatened elected representatives, journalists, and the basic functioning of American democracy is both practical and emotional. Thinking that we know what motivated the rioters makes their rebellion feel a little more manageable (at least to me) and might just help prevent something like it from happening again.

Given my background — I’ve been writing about soldiers and veterans for years — my management technique has been to look at the military links to that assault.

I’m hardly alone. In one of the few times other than Veterans Day in this century when American journalists seem to have remembered that our military was crucial to our national experience, a number of them began covering that link. A regularly updated NPR list shows that almost all of those with military affiliations in the Capitol that day were veterans. Several had previously been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan; one had worked on presidential helicopters and so (like another of the rioters) would have had a top-secret security clearance; one, who wasn’t actually at the Capitol but whom the FBI is eyeing for conspiracy charges, was on the staff of former congressman Ron Paul; and one had even been in the Peace Corps. Nearly all of them were men and nearly all were white. Two were Citadel cadets, but only two were active-duty personnel. (One of those had, in the past, come to work at a Navy yard in New Jersey decked out in a Hitler mustache and hairdo and reportedly made anti-Semitic comments daily. He got admonished for the mustache; the comments continued.)

I admit that I was surprised by all this, although I probably shouldn’t have been. After all, last year, even in the age of Trump, the FBI had opened 68 investigations into domestic extremism involving current or former members of the military.

I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that many of those veterans were affiliated with the far-right Proud Boys or Oath Keepers and much has been made of why such groups would want to engage people with military experience who bring with them training, skills, possible access to weaponry, and the twisted credibility of government-issued hero status. Far less was said about why people in the military might be attracted to far-right groups.

The Link Between Extremist Culture and the Military

A week after the Capitol invasion, 14 Democratic senators wrote a letter calling on the Pentagon’s Inspector General to investigate “white supremacy” and “extremism in the military.” The next month, a House subcommittee held a hearing under the rubric “Alarming Incidents of White Supremacy in the Military — How to Stop It?” Meanwhile, on February 5th, the first Black secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, directed commanding officers at all levels to conduct a one-day stand-down before April 1st to address extremism in the military and provide training in avoiding involvement with extremist groups. At the same time, the Pentagon admitted that it didn’t have a handle on the scope of the problem or what to do about it.

The link between extremist culture and the military goes way back, as do efforts to track and deal with it. The names of the groups have changed over the years — they used to sound German, now they sound moralistic — but the problem hasn’t. For instance, in 2009, Operation Vigilant Eagle, an FBI program focused on the recruitment of veterans by white supremacist groups, came to light, and that same year a Department of Homeland Security assessment warned that “right-wing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans” — returning, that is, from America’s distant, never-ending wars. Conservative politicians, media personalities and veterans’ groups found that DHS report insulting to veterans and got it withdrawn.

Keep in mind that active-duty service members are officially restricted in their political activities, so there were undoubtedly many still in uniform who didn’t show up at the Capitol but would have liked to do so. And though the Proud Boys have focused their recruiting on the military and law enforcement, it’s hardly necessary to join such loosely structured groups to support their ideology and aims. A 2019 Military Times survey, for example, found that 36% of military respondents had “witnessed examples of white supremacy and racist ideologies” in the ranks.

Military rules tend to delineate the rights soldiers don’t have more than those they do, but Department of Defense Directive 1325.6 gives active-duty members the right to participate in political demonstrations as long as they are off base, out of uniform, within the United States, representing only themselves, and not slandering the president or high officials. However, activities like fundraising for, distributing the political material of, or wearing the totemic clothing of white supremist and other extremist groups could indeed get you kicked out of the military, as could certain kinds of social-media posts.

Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) has been pushing to track the social media activities of all enlistees and the Pentagon claims that it’s looking for a “scalable way” to add that into background checks.

Members of the armed forces have a duty to report such behavior, though don’t count on that, since it’s probably seen as snitching. Commanders also have considerable leeway when it comes to how they might respond to the proscribed actions.

It goes without saying, of course, that soldiers are not supposed to engage in any kind of violence — except the violence they’re ordered to take part in as soldiers.

That’s Not Okay — ish

America’s military was designed to be politically neutral and has prided itself on being nondiscriminatory and merit-based, traits theoretically crucial to maintaining an all-volunteer force (though in racial terms over the years it’s been anything but, at least when it came to the high command). All branches now purport to screen for supremacist, extremist, or criminal-gang involvement at the time of enlistment and military leaders, who probably don’t want troublemakers in their commands, are reportedly taking pains to confirm that such extremists will not be tolerated.

Except when they are.

The design of military justice makes it hard to track advocates of extremist violence, as there is no centralized record-keeping for such things and, often enough, such behavior is simply brushed aside.


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In my own unscientific survey, I recently asked two active-duty soldiers and three Iraq War veterans if they had encountered right-wing extremism while in the service. Four initially said no — the fifth, a Black sailor, at one point had had a noose dangled in his face — but then began recounting tales of what was permitted or considered normal behavior: a U.S.-based paramedic talking about avoiding a Black neighborhood where he would encounter “animals”; a call from a friend and Stryker platoon leader in Germany who found arbeit macht frei, the slogan at the gates of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, carved into the interior of some of his unit’s vehicles; a fellow recruit at basic training revealing a giant swastika on his back. He was soon sent packing, but had made it through the enlistment process where such things are supposed to be caught. (My source thought his quick dismissal came only because his training instructor was Black. He didn’t consider such a response typical.)

Nobody I talked to was okay with any of this, but one active-duty soldier admitted, “When I was most brainwashed, I saw it as cathartic, being comfortable without having to worry about ‘cancel culture.’”

Extremism in a World of Never-Ending War

Organizing within the military isn’t easy. At least, it wasn’t for antiwar activists during the Vietnam and Iraq War years (as I found out when researching my book, War Is Not a Game: The New Antiwar Soldiers and the Movement They Built). But maybe what’s going on now among the soldiers of the far right isn’t organizing as much as a signaling or sharing of interests and affinities, particularly on the Internet. Or maybe it’s “self-radicalizing” — reading extremist material, following the websites of supremacist groups, or connecting on social media; what, in other circumstances, we might call educating yourself — which breeds sympathy, if not membership.

As separate as the military may seem from civilian culture, it’s anything but immune to the vicious discord which now plagues this country. But the military was fertile territory for right-wing sympathies long before Donald Trump became president or the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers came along. The turning of the post-Vietnam War military into an all-volunteer force only seems to have exacerbated such tendencies. As an Army captain emailed me, “The military recruits heavily from the same population that extremist organizations do — socially isolated, downwardly mobile, and economically vulnerable young men.” Jonathan Hutto, a Black veteran who challenged the racism he encountered in the Navy, wrote that his shipmates didn’t need to be “inculcated with Racist-Fascist Ideology” because they had arrived primed for it by their families and communities.

A former captain in the Marines told me that veterans often find themselves battling with the VA over benefits and services they thought they’d been promised when they went to war and that leaves them embittered against the government. Their difficulty in even talking honestly about their war experiences, not to speak of the PTSD they may be experiencing, often leaves them feeling out of sync with the country — and so they become ready recruits for extremist and white supremacist groups that offer them a sense of belonging.

Active-duty service members also often feel betrayed by recruitment promises which never pan out and multiple deployments in distant war zones which accomplish little or nothing at all. Speaking of that sense of resentment, Garett Reppenhagen, executive director of Veterans For Peace, says, “They just can’t pinpoint where it comes from. The frustration is legitimate. It’s just focused wrongly.”

Kathleen Belew, a historian much cited in the wake of the January 6th insurrection, studied the appeal to veterans of white-power groups in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. In her book Bring the War Home, she explains how they came to see the state as the enemy and patriotism as something other than defending the nation. The parallels to today, while striking, lack one reality of this moment: unlike in the Vietnam era, America’s wars in this century have simply never ended and so continue to produce alienated veterans.

It’s striking, after all, that the veterans who joined the Capitol insurrection weren’t exactly kids. In fact, only seven military-connected rioters arrested so far are 30 or younger.

Unlike with Vietnam (long as it was), when wars never end but continue, as if on a Mobius strip of belligerency and repetitious deployments, there is no aftermath, no recovery. People now old enough to enlist have never known a United States not at war. As a result, the pressures now at play and producing extremism in the military could be seen as related to what one veteran I interviewed termed a larger “cultural project” that, however unexamined, is aimed at creating an ever-more-militarized (which also means an ever-more-extreme) society.

Here, war is sold, not just as acceptable, but as necessary to maintain the vaunted American way of life. Meanwhile, its actualities are largely cloaked from scrutiny until they shimmer into a very pricey item loved by both parties. It’s called the Pentagon budget.

An Increasingly Militarized Heritage

However many military-related figures broke into the Capitol on January 6th, what if the tendency toward violent extremism is more endemic to that military than we’d like to think? What if the very purpose of such a military creates the conditions for the racism and violence we’re now seeing? What if far-right radicals aren’t some enemy out there but a seamless outgrowth of the institution we think of as so categorically American? And if all that’s so, what have we really been thanking service members for, so devotedly all these years?

A military is, of course, innately hierarchical, authoritarian, and adversarial, and war, by definition, is terror. Tenets inculcated from basic training on — venerating tradition, idealizing heroism, valuing action for action’s sake, equating masculinity with militarism, and thinking of anyone who disagrees with you as potentially treasonous — are eerily similar to the ideology of far-right groups. And don’t forget this either: American wars of the past 70 years have functioned by reducing the enemy to gooks, sand n***s, and hajis (the last, a term of respect in Islam twisted into an epithet by American troops) — in other words, using baked-in racism to dehumanize enemies and make it easier to hate and kill them.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m by no means saying that everyone in the U.S. military is racist or enamored of violence, or that they condone or support racist, violent ideologies. What’s true, however, is that the military’s actions are based on dividing the world into friends and foes: the first to be protected out of all proportion to the threat, the second to be humiliated and defeated out of all proportion to the need — though, in this century, ironically enough, the defeated have turned out to be us.

Such overkill in attitude and approach naturally bleeds into society as a whole (even when its members are paying remarkably little attention to the wars being fought in distant lands). Of his country’s treatment of Palestinians, the Israeli novelist David Grossman wrote, “I could not understand how an entire nation like mine, an enlightened nation by all accounts, is able to train itself to live as a conqueror without making its own life wretched.”

Only a small crew of people in the military actually join radical right-wing groups and there’s little question that its leadership is concerned about those who do. But there is an inheritance of violence in our increasingly militarized land that ought to concern us all, too.

Copyright 2021 Nan Levinson

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.

Nan Levinson’s most recent book is War Is Not a Game: The New Antiwar Soldiers and the Movement They Built. A TomDispatch regular, she teaches journalism and fiction writing at Tufts University.

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The Border-Industrial Complex in the Post-Trump Era: The Crisis is Capitalism https://www.juancole.com/2021/03/industrial-complex-capitalism.html Wed, 24 Mar 2021 04:01:36 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=196805 By Todd Miller | –

( Tomdispatchcom ) – In late February, I drove to see the Trump wall in Sasabe, Arizona. As soon as I parked, a green-striped Border Patrol vehicle stationed a quarter of a mile away began to creep down the dirt road toward us. Just ahead, a dystopian “No Trespassing” sign was flapping in the wind. It was cold as I stepped out of the car with my five-year-old son, William. The wall ahead of us, 30-feet high with steel bollards, was indeed imposing as it quavered slightly in the wind. Through its bars we could see Mexico, a broken panorama of hills filled with mesquites backed by a blue sky.

The Homeland Security vehicle soon pulled up next to us. An agent rolled down his window and asked me, “What are you doing? Joyriding?”

After I laughed in response to a word I hadn’t heard in years, the agent informed us that we were in a dangerous construction zone, even if this part of the wall had been built four months earlier. I glanced around. There were no bulldozers, excavators, or construction equipment of any sort. I wondered whether the lack of machinery reflected the campaign promise of the recently inaugurated Joe Biden that “not another foot” of Trump’s wall would be built.

Indeed, that was why I was here — to see what the border looked like as the post-Trump era began. President Biden had started his term with strong promises to reverse the border policies of his predecessor: families torn apart would be reunited and asylum seekers previously forced to stay in Mexico allowed to enter the United States. Given the Trump years, the proposals of the new administration sounded almost revolutionary.

And yet something else bothered me as we drove away: everything looked the same as it had for years. I’ve been coming to this stretch of border since 2001. I’ve witnessed its incremental disfigurement during the most dramatic border fortification period in this country’s history. In the early 2000s came an influx of Border Patrol agents, followed in 2007 by the construction of a 15-foot wall (that Senator Joe Biden voted for), followed by high-tech surveillance towers, courtesy of a multi-billion-dollar contract with the Boeing Corporation.

Believe me, the forces that shaped our southern border over the decades have been far more powerful than Donald Trump or any individual politician. During the 2020 election, it was commonly asserted that, by getting rid of Trump, the United States would create a more humane border and immigration system. And there was a certain truth to that, but a distinctly limited one. Underneath the theater of partisan politics, there remains a churning border-industrial complex, a conjunction of entrenched interests and relationships between the U.S. government — particularly the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — and private corporations that has received very little attention.

The small border town of Sasabe and its surrounding region is a microcosm of this.

The cumulative force of that complex will now carry on in Trump’s wake. Indeed, during the 2020 election the border industry, created through decades of bipartisan fortification, actually donated more money to the Biden campaign and the Democrats than to Trump and the Republicans.

The Complex

In the 12 years from 2008 to 2020, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) dolled out 105,000 contracts, or a breathtaking average of 24 contracts a day, worth $55 billion to private contractors. That sum exceeded their $52 billion collective budgets for border and immigration enforcement for the 28 years from 1975 to 2003. While those contracts included ones for companies like Fisher Sand and Gravel that built the 30-foot wall my son and I saw in Sasabe, many of them — including the most expensive — went to companies creating high-tech border fortification, ranging from sophisticated camera systems to advanced biometric and data-processing technologies.

This might explain the border industry’s interest in candidate Biden, who promised: “I’m going to make sure that we have border protection, but it’s going to be based on making sure that we use high-tech capacity to deal with it.”

Behind that bold, declarative sentence lay an all-too-familiar version of technological border protection sold as something so much more innocuous, harmless, and humane than what Trump was offering. As it happens, despite our former president’s urge to create a literal wall across hundreds of miles of borderlands, high-technology has long been and even in the Trump years remained a large part of the border-industrial complex.

One pivotal moment for that complex came in 2005 when the deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Jackson (previously Lockheed Martin’s chief operating officer), addressed a conference room of border-industry representatives about creating a virtual or technological wall. “This is an unusual invitation,” he said then. “I want to make sure you have it clearly, that we’re asking you to come back and tell us how to do our business. We’re asking you. We’re inviting you to tell us how to run our organization.”

Of course, by then, the border and immigration enforcement system had already been on a growth spurt. During President Bill Clinton’s administration (1993-2001), for example, its annual budgets had nearly tripled from $1.5 billion to $4.3 billion. Clinton, in fact, initiated the immigration deterrence system still in place today in which Washington deployed armed agents, barriers, and walls, as well as high-tech systems to block the traditional urban places where immigrants had once crossed. They were funneled instead into dangerous and deadly spots like the remote and brutal Arizona desert around Sasabe. As Clinton put it in his 1995 State of the Union address:

“[O]ur administration has moved aggressively to secure our borders more by hiring a record number of new border guards, by deporting twice as many criminal aliens as ever before, by cracking down on illegal hiring, by barring welfare benefits to illegal aliens.”

Sound familiar?

The Clinton years, however, already seemed like ancient times when Jackson made that 2005 plea. He was speaking in the midst of a burgeoning Homeland Security era. After all, DHS was only created in 2002 in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. In fact, during George W. Bush’s years in office, border and immigration enforcement budgets grew from $4.2 billion in 2000 to $15.2 billion in 2008 — more, that is, than during any other presidency including Donald Trump’s. Under Bush, that border became another front in the war on terror (even if no terrorists crossed it), opening the money faucets. And that was what Jackson was underscoring — the advent of a new reality that would produce tens of thousands of contracts for private companies.

In addition, as U.S. war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq began to wane, many security and defense companies pivoted toward the new border market. As one vendor pointed out to me at a Border Security Expo in Phoenix in 2012, “We are bringing the battlefield to the border.” That vendor, who had been a soldier in Afghanistan a few years earlier, smiled confidently, the banners of large weapons-makers like Raytheon hanging above him. At the time (as now), an “unprecedented boom period” was forecast for the border market. As the company VisionGain explained then, a “virtuous circle… would continue to drive spending in the long term based on three interlocking developments: ‘illegal immigration and terrorist infiltration,’ more money for border policing in ‘developing countries,’ and the ‘maturation’ of new technologies.”


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Since 9/11, border-security corporate giants became big campaign contributors not only to presidential candidates, but also to key members of the Appropriations Committees and the Homeland Security Committees (both House and Senate) — all crucial when it came to border policies, contracts, and budgets. Between 2006 and 2018, top border contractors like General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon contributed a total of $27.6 million to members of the House Appropriations Committee and $6.5 million to members of the House Homeland Security Committee. And from 2002 to 2019, there were nearly 20,000 reported lobbying “visits” to congressional offices related to homeland security. The 2,841 visits reported for 2018 alone included ones from top CBP and ICE contractors Accenture, CoreCivic, GeoGroup, L3Harris, and Leidos.

By the time Donald Trump entered the White House in 2017, the border-industrial complex was truly humming. That year, he would oversee a $20-billion border and immigration budget and have at his disposal nearly 20,000 Border Patrol agents (up from 4,000 in 1994), 650 miles of already built walls and barriers, billions of dollars in border technology then in place, and more than 200 immigration-detention centers across the United States.

He claimed he was going to build his very own “big, fat, beautiful wall,” most of which, as it turned out, already existed. He claimed that he was going to clamp down on a border that was already remarkably clamped down upon. And in his own fashion, he took it to new levels.

That’s what we saw in Sasabe, where a 15-foot wall had recently been replaced with a 30-foot wall. As it happened, much of the 450 miles of wall the Trump administration did, in the end, build really involved interchanging already existing smaller barriers with monstrous ones that left remarkable environmental and cultural destruction in their wake.

Trump administration policies forced people seeking asylum to wait in Mexico, infants to appear in immigration court, and separated family members into a sprawling incarceration apparatus whose companies had been making up to $126 per person per day for years. He could have done little of this without the constantly growing border-industrial complex that preceded him and, in important ways, made him.

Nonetheless, in the 2020 election campaign, the border industry pivoted toward Biden and the Democrats. That pivot ensured one thing: that its influence would be strong, if not preeminent, on such issues when the new administration took over.

The Biden Years Begin at the Border

In early January 2021, Biden’s nominee to run DHS, Alejandro Mayorkas disclosed that, over the previous three years, he had earned $3.3 million from corporate clients with the WilmerHale law firm. Two of those clients were Northrop Grumman and Leidos, companies that Nick Buxton and I identified as top border contractors in Biden’s Border: The Industry, the Democrats and the 2020 Election, a report we co-authored for the Transnational Institute.

When we started to look at the 2020 campaign contributions of 13 top border contractors for CBP and ICE, we had no idea what to expect. It was, after all, a corporate group that included producers of surveillance infrastructure for the high-tech “virtual wall” along the border like L3Harris, General Dynamics, and the Israeli company Elbit Systems; others like Palantir and IBM produced border data-processing software; and there were also detention companies like CoreCivic and GeoGroup.

To our surprise, these companies had given significantly more to the Biden campaign ($5,364,994) than to Trump ($1,730,435). In general, they had shifted to the Democrats who garnered 55% of their $40 million in campaign contributions, including donations to key members of the House and Senate Appropriations and Homeland Security committees.

It’s still too early to assess just what will happen to this country’s vast border-and-immigration apparatus under the Biden administration, which has made promises about reversing Trumpian border policies. Still, it will be no less caught in the web of the border-industrial complex than the preceding administration.

Perhaps a glimpse of the future border under Biden was offered when, on January 19th, Homeland Security secretary nominee Mayorkas appeared for his Senate confirmation hearings and was asked about the 8,000 people from Honduras heading for the U.S. in a “caravan” at that very moment. The day before, U.S.-trained troops and police in Guatemala had thwarted and then deported vast numbers of them as they tried to cross into that country. Many in the caravan reported that they were heading north thanks to back-to-back catastrophic category 4 hurricanes that had devastated the Honduran and Nicaraguan coasts in November 2020.

Mayorkas responded rather generically that if people were found to qualify “under the law to remain in the United States, then we will apply the law accordingly, if they do not qualify to remain in the United States, then they won’t.” Given that there is no climate-refugee status available to anyone crossing the border that meant most of those who finally made it (if they ever did) wouldn’t qualify to stay.

It’s possible that, by the time I went to see that wall with my son in late February, some people from that caravan had already made it to the border, despite endless obstacles in their path. As we drove down Highway 286, also known as the Sasabe Road, there were reports of undocumented people from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico all traveling through the rugged Baboquivari mountain range to the west of us and the grim canyons to the east of us in attempts to avoid the Border Patrol and its surveillance equipment.

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned Americans against what he dubbed “the military-industrial complex” in 1961, he spoke of its “total influence — economic, political, even spiritual… felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the Federal government.” Sixty years later, something similar could be said of the ever-expanding border-industrial complex. It needs just such climate disasters and just such caravans (or, as we’re seeing right now, just such “crises” of unaccompanied minors) to continue its never-ending growth, whether the president is touting a big, fat, beautiful wall or opting for high-tech border technology.

For my son and me, the enforcement apparatus first became noticeable at a checkpoint 25 miles north of the international boundary. Not only were green-uniformed agents interrogating passengers in any vehicle heading northwards, but a host of cameras focused on the vehicles passing by.

Whether they were license-plate readers or facial-recognition cameras I had no way of knowing. What I did know was that Northrop Grumman (which contributed $649,748 to Joe Biden and $323,014 to Donald Trump in the 2020 election campaign) had received a valuable contract to ensure that CBP’s biometric system included “modalities” of all sorts — face and voice data, iris recognition, scars and tattoos, possibly even DNA sample collection, and information about “relationship patterns” and “encounters” with the public. And who could tell if the Predator B drones that General Atomics produces — oh, by the way, that company gave $82,974 to Biden and $51,665 to Trump in 2020 — were above us (as they regularly are in the border regions) using Northrup Grumman’s VADER “man-hunting” radar system first deployed in Afghanistan?

As we traveled through that gauntlet, Border Patrol vehicles were everywhere, reinforcing the surveillance apparatus that extends 100 miles into the U.S. interior. We soon passed a surveillance tower at the side of the road first erected by the Boeing Corporation and renovated by Elbit Systems ($5,553 to Biden, $5,649 to Trump), one of dozens in the area. On the other side of that highway was a gravel clearing where a G4S ($49,233 to Biden, $33,019 to Trump) van usually idles. It’s a mobile prison the Border Patrol uses to transport its prisoners to short-term detention centers in Tucson. And keep in mind that there was so much we couldn’t see like the thousands of implanted motion sensors manufactured by a host of other companies.

Traveling through this border area, it’s hard not to feel like you’re in a profitable version of a classic panopticon, a prison system in which, wherever you might be, you’re being watched. Even five-year-old William was startled by such a world and, genuinely puzzled, asked me, “Why do the green men,” as he calls the Border Patrol, “want to stop the workers?”

By the time we got to that shard of Trump’s “big, fat, beautiful” wall, it seemed like just a modest part of a much larger system that left partisan politics in the dust. At its heart was never The Donald but a powerful cluster of companies with an active interest in working on that border until the end of time.

Just after the agent told us that we were in a construction zone and needed to leave, I noticed a pile of bollards near the dirt road that ran parallel to the wall. They were from the previous wall, the one Biden had voted for in 2006. As William and I drove back to Tucson through that gauntlet of inspection, I wondered what the border-industrial world would look like when he was my age and living in what could be an even more extreme world filled with ever more terrified people fleeing disaster.

And I kept thinking of that discarded pile of bollards, a reminder of just how easy it would be to tear that wall and the world that goes with it down.

Copyright 2021 Todd Miller

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.

Todd Miller, a TomDispatch regular, has written on border and immigration issues for the New York Times, Al Jazeera America, and the NACLA Report on the Americas. His latest book is Build Bridges, Not Walls: A Journey to a World Without Borders. You can follow him on Twitter @memomiller and view more of his work at toddmillerwriter.com.

Via Tomdispatchcom

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On January 6th, the U.S. Became a Foreign Country https://www.juancole.com/2021/03/january-foreign-country.html Wed, 17 Mar 2021 04:01:38 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=196689

How Endless Wars and Interventions Helped Create the Assault on the Capitol

By Kevin Tillman | –

( Tomdispatch.com) – Just about everyone was shocked by what happened at the Capitol building on January 6th. But as a former soldier in America’s forever wars, horrifying as the scenes were, I also found what happened strangely familiar, almost inevitable. I thought that, if only we had taken our country’s imperial history seriously, none of us would have found that day either shocking or unprecedented.

Honestly, it could only seem that way if you imagined our domestic politics as completely separate from our foreign policy. But if we’re to learn anything from that maladroit attempt at a government-toppling coup, it should be that they are anything but separate. The question isn’t whether then-President Donald Trump incited the assault on the Capitol — of course he did. It is rather: Since when have we cared if an American president lies to incite an illegal insurrection? In all honesty, our commanders-in-chief have been doing so abroad for generations with complete impunity. It was only a matter of time before the moral rot finally made its way home.

Back in 2007, I actually met Nancy Pelosi whom those insurrectionists were going after — “Tell Pelosi we’re coming for that b**ch. Tell f***ing Pelosi we’re coming for her!” — in that very Capitol building. That day, my family was testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform concerning the U.S. government’s disinformation campaign about how, three years earlier, my brother Pat Tillman had died in Afghanistan (as a result of “friendly,” not enemy, fire). We would testify alongside former soldier Jessica Lynch who had suffered a similar disinformation fate in the wake of a tragic ambush of her convoy in Nasiriyah, Iraq, where soldiers died and she was taken prisoner. After the hearing, we discussed the case with Pelosi, who then took us on a brief personal tour of the halls of the building. Given the circumstances, it was a thoughtful gesture and a humbling experience.

So, it was personally quite unsettling to watch that rabid mob of insurrectionists storm our Capitol, some actively seeking to kill the woman who had walked our family through those same halls, wearing her signature green business suit. To see people desecrating that building over grievances rooted in demonstrable and absurd untruths manufactured by President Trump was both grotesque and shameful.

And yet, however surreal, disappointing, disqualifying, even treasonous that assault and the 57-43 Senate acquittal of the president would be, what took place should, in another sense, not have been a shock to anyone. The idea that January 6th was something new for this country and so a unique affront to the American idea of democracy, not to speak of common decency, was simply wrong. After all, ever since 1945, this country has regularly intervened in elections all over the globe and done far worse as well. What’s disorienting, I suppose, is that this time we did it to ourselves.

Around the Globe, Generation after Generation

My own limited experience with American interventionism involves the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. After the September 11th attacks, I enlisted in the U.S. Army with Pat. We would be assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment and our unit would in March 2003 be sent into Iraq, one of so many tools in the Bush administration’s war of aggression there. We would help remove Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein by force. It was hardly the mission I had in mind when I signed up, but I was naive when it came to foreign policy. Being part of illegal invasions, however, leaves lasting impressions.

That particular intervention in Iraq began with a barrage of administration lies about Saddam’s supposed supply of weapons of mass destruction, his reputed links to al-Qaeda, and the idea that we were liberating the Iraqi people. Some of us actually were assigned to run around Baghdad, “east, west, south, and north somewhat,” looking for those nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. The whole invasion would prove catastrophic, of course, resulting in the destruction of Iraqi society, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of American soldiers, even as that country’s leadership was removed and its military disbanded (mission accomplished!). Of course, neither President George W. Bush, nor the rest of the top officials of his administration were held responsible for what happened.

So, when I watched the January 6th insurrection unfold, my mind was immediately drawn to the period leading up to the Iraq war — except this time, the drumbeat of lies had to do with massive voter fraud, voting irregularities, “dead voters,” rigged software, and other fabrications. Obviously, the two events were drastically different in scale, complexity, and destructiveness. Still, they seemed to share common fundamental threads.

Examples of American interference in the governance of foreign countries via coups, regime change, and other ploys are commonplaces of our modern history. Among the best known would be the replacing of a number of democratically elected leaders like Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh with the Shah (1953), Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz with Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas (1954), Chilean President Salvador Allende with General Augusto Pinochet (1973), or Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in a U.S.-backed coup (2009). In other words, we’re not talking about a few one-off mistakes or a couple of dumb wars.

In truth, there has been an endless supply of such U.S. interventions around the globe: invasions, military coups, soft coups, economic sanctions, secretly funding candidates of Washington’s choice, the fueling of existing conflicts, you name it and it’s probably happened.

Take for example our neighbors in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. I honestly don’t know if there is a single nation in Latin America that hasn’t fallen victim to a U.S. intervention of some sort: Argentina (1976), Bolivia (1971), Brazil (1964), Cuba (1961), El Salvador (the 1980s), Grenada (1983), Haiti (2004), Honduras (1980 and 2009), Panama (1989), Paraguay (1962), Peru (1968), Suriname (the 1980s), Uruguay (1973), Venezuela (the present moment). Maybe Costa Rica was spared?


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Venezuela is a particularly interesting case because for 20 years — three consecutive presidencies — Washington has unsuccessfully supported multiple coup attempts, levied crippling illegal economic sanctions, and engaged in other types of tricks to topple former president Hugo Chávez and the current President Nicolás Maduro. Coincidentally, in January 2019, former President Trump recognized Juan Guaidó, a member of the Venezuelan National Assembly, as that country’s president. Guaidó had declared himself president after he didn’t like the results of an election (not unlike Mr. Trump two years later).

Looking across the Pacific Ocean, don’t forget about the wars we engaged in that ravaged Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, or about Washington’s support for Suharto’s 1965 military coup in Indonesia.

And, of course, who doesn’t remember what happened (and continues to happen) in the Greater Middle East from Iraq and Afghanistan to Syria, Yemen, and Iran, among other places? In the last nearly 20 years, Washington’s never-ending Global War On Terror has created a level of death, destruction, and displacement difficult to comprehend, though Brown University’s Costs of War Project has done a superb (if grim) job of trying to quantify it all.

And what I listed above is anything but comprehensive. The point is that, generation after generation, Americans have been directly or indirectly involved in or exposed to such rogue behavior, a type of interference that had already long become part of our national fabric by the time it made it to the Capitol.

End the Tradition

To be sure, this has been a bipartisan pattern, as the administrations of president after president, Democrat and Republican, engaged in it.

Even if we were to take the position that some of those interventions were somehow legal, moral, or necessary, the behavior itself has become completely normalized as a crucial go-to option for any president. It’s also worth noting just what types of nations have typically been targeted for such interventions — usually vulnerable states with weak economies and frail institutions. Whether democracies or dictatorships hasn’t seemed to matter. The populations of such countries have, however, almost invariably been nonwhite. Putting aside the obvious illegality, immorality, and even cowardice of picking on vulnerable nations, such acts historically have probably exacerbated the role of jingoism and xenophobia, as well as cultural and racial superiority in this country, just the sort of thinking so evident on January 6th. This behavior breeds disunity and hate.

When it came to overthrowing other governments, our presidents regularly peddled obvious and verifiable lies, broke or disregarded laws (domestic and international), and freely used violence and intimidation to gain power and profit, seldom being held accountable in any fashion for any of it. However such methods were to come home someday, what happened on January 6th should still be a wake-up call, forcing us all to see what it means when this signature American approach to foreign policy is used against our own democracy.

The Capitol insurrection should be (but hasn’t yet been) treated as a vivid reminder of the way this country’s foreign policy has undermined the American system, too. I see it as a form of “blowback,” to use the CIA term popularized long ago by Chalmers Johnson.

In some fashion, at least, it undoubtedly influenced the behavior of former president Trump and his followers, explaining why they believed it was a viable option to use force at the Capitol to stop democracy in its tracks. Based on our history, it was a strategy long deployed elsewhere without remorse or fear of repercussions in order to get what American leaders wanted.

What once might have seemed improbable for our democracy to suffer suddenly became a reality, one that had long been experienced by so many other peoples at our hands. And if changes aren’t made, it won’t be the last time either.

In his Inaugural Address, President Biden appeared willing to tackle many of the big challenges that our country now faces. He spoke with a kind of clarity, kindness, inclusion, and sanity that had been missing of late. Specifically, he addressed the needs of this nation:

“Much to repair. Much to restore. Much to heal. Much to build. And much to gain…. To overcome these challenges — to restore the soul and to secure the future of America — requires more than words. It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity… Uniting to fight the common foes we face: Anger, resentment, hatred. Extremism, lawlessness, violence. Disease, joblessness, hopelessness.”

President Biden also talked about the dangers of big lies and “alternative facts,” saying:

“There is truth and there are lies. Lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders — leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation — to defend the truth and to defeat the lies.”

No doubt President Biden’s concerns do need to be addressed in this time of troubles for us all and I believe he genuinely meant what he said. From the pandemic to inequality, there are obviously domestic issues, driven by developments inside our own borders that need serious attention.

However, any efforts to achieve such goals domestically will ultimately fail if those unsustainable contradictions outside our borders persist. If President Biden’s calls for unity are to produce tangible and lasting results, what’s needed is a holistic approach that extends to America’s behavior abroad.

In the past, even when President Trump spoke of calling a halt to our endless wars and interventions, the pattern continued. There always seemed to be some reason that made the next act of pillaging “necessary and appropriate.” This time, of course, I hope that the president and his staff will indeed have the courage to break with tradition, but based on the recent airstrike Biden ordered in Syria, a country his boss helped to ravage while he was vice president, what’s probably needed is an organized and vocal demand from the American people.

Since it’s clear that our executive branch has the unchecked power to illegally command insurrections here at home, invade and destroy vulnerable nations at will, relentlessly slaughter and displace families, starve foreign peoples through economic sanctions, foment coups abroad, handpick leaders for other countries with impunity, and send American troops to die for “lies told for power and profit” against manufactured “foes,” then it’s also legally within its power not to do any of that.

Perhaps exercising the power, authority, and responsibility to stop the illegal, unlawful, and immoral behavior around the globe could prove a major first step toward the president’s goals of unifying both our nation and a shared global community.

Copyright 2021 Kevin Tillman

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.

Kevin Tillman, who works in the software industry, joined the U.S. Army with his brother Pat in 2002 after the attacks of September 11th. He served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Pat was killed in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004. This is Kevin’s first TomDispatch piece.

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We’re Stalked by the 4 Horsemen of Apocalyptic Media: Rush, Roger, Rupert, and The Donald May Ride Forever https://www.juancole.com/2021/03/horsemen-apocalyptic-forever.html Mon, 08 Mar 2021 05:01:25 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=196528 By Robert Lipsyte | –

( Tomdispatch.com) – The Four Horsemen of our media apocalypse — Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch, and Donald Trump — have ridden roughshod over us this past half-century leaving their hoofprints on our politics, our culture, and our lives. Two of them are gone now, but their legacies, including the News Corporation, the Fox News empire, and a gang of broadcast barbarians will ensure that a lasting plague of misinformation, propaganda masquerading as journalism, and plain old fake news will be our inheritance.

The original Four Horsemen were biblical characters seen as punishments from God. By the time they became common literary and then film currency, they generally went by the names of Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death. Matching each with Limbaugh, Ailes, Murdoch, and Trump should prove a grisly but all-too-relevant parlor game. The originals were supposed to signal end times and sometimes, when I think about their modern American descendants, I wonder if we’re heading in just that direction.

Reflecting on the lives of those modern embodiments of (self-) punishment makes me wonder how we ever let them happen. Isn’t there any protection against evil of their sort in a democracy, even when you know about it early? Maybe when evil plays so cleverly into fears and resentments or is just so damn entertaining, not enough people can resist it. Hey, I even worked for one of the horsemen. It was my favorite job… until it wasn’t.

But first, let me start with Rush Limbaugh. The nation’s leading right-wing bullhorn died last month at 70. His vicious wit (“feminazis”) and ability to squeeze complex subjects into catchy sound bites (“In Obama’s America, the white kids now get beat up with the Black kids cheering”) stirred and nourished a devoted mass who would become a crucial part of Trump’s base. Limbaugh, earning by the end more than $80 million a year, left his heirs a reported $600 million.

Those numbers, I believe, defined him far more than any political stance he took and, at the same time, made him indefensible. He was Pestilence, spreading poison without either genuine ideology or principle of any sort. He was doing shtick, whatever worked for him (and work it certainly did). He was, by nature, a great entertainer. One more thing: don’t kid yourself, he was smart.

I realized this in 1995 when Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken, Jr., was approaching Lou Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive baseball games. The Yankee star set that record in 1939 when, after 17 big league seasons, he finally took himself out of the lineup because he was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, later known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Tongue-in-cheek, in my then-weekly New York Times sports column, I called on Cal to take a day off to avoid breaking the record. I wrote that, if he did, he would “be remembered forever as an athlete who stepped proudly over the statistical rubble of his sport to lead us all into a higher level of consciousness. He will end up a bigger Calvin than Klein.”

The response from pundits, sportswriters, and fans was overwhelmingly negative. I was called clueless and stupid or, at least, a running dog of a new, much-mocked and demeaned “participation culture,” unaware of the competitive nature of sports. Worse yet, I was trying to deny a hero his due.

It seemed that, of all people, only Limbaugh picked up on the mindless paradox of the situation — after all, Ripken would merely have to show up at work that day to claim his trophy — or even how obviously I had been offering my advice tongue in cheek. And he said so on a national radio network carrying his shows.

As the saying goes, it takes one to know one. That he saw what I was actually doing convinced me that he, too, often had his tongue tucked firmly in that cheek of his and away from anything that might pass for his rational brain. And this would, in the end, make it all that much worse. My guess: he wasn’t ever truly a believer in the right-wing trash he talked. From the beginning, he was a mercenary, a commercial provocateur who found fame and fortune by spreading ever more toxic takes.

Down Under with Murdoch

Of the Four Horsemen, I came upon Rupert Murdoch first — in early 1977, soon after he bought that once-liberal newspaper, the New York Post. Among his earliest hires as columnists (strange indeed, given what we now know of him) were progressive icon Murray Kempton and me.

I already knew something about Murdoch’s Australian and British reputation as a venal press lord, but the lure of a no-holds-barred cityside column and the possibility of sharing an office with Kempton proved irresistible. Murdoch and I first met in the crowded, raffish Post newsroom in lower Manhattan. He was brisk but pleasant that day, asking me at one point how I would improve the paper. I answered breezily: “For starters, I’d hire more women, Blacks, Latinos, gays, so the city can be properly covered.”


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He regarded me coolly. “Hmm, yes,” he said, “but instead I’m hiring a liberal like you.”

At that moment, I sensed that he was a monster and that this would end badly. I lasted all of seven months, mostly thanks to another monster, the serial killer Son of Sam, who terrorized the city that year. Like so many other tabloid writers of that moment, I spent the summer writing about the hunt for him, which mostly kept me out of trouble, since Murdoch loved sex, violence, and crime. But then there were those off-his-message columns I wrote about Israel, the South Bronx, and his favored candidate for mayor, Ed Koch.

And there were my shoes. They were soft Italian suede. Beige. I felt cool in them. One day, a new Australian editor took me aside and said, “Lose the poufter boots, mate. The boss hates them.”

Of course, now I had to wear them every day despite that boss’s homophobia. It was about then that whole paragraphs simply began to disappear from my column (without anyone consulting me), while the column itself was often shoved ever deeper into the paper, especially if I wrote about, say, marching in a women’s movement or gay pride parade with one of my kids. Sometimes the column would be cut entirely.

I resigned from the Post live on Dave Marash’s 11 p.m. local CBS TV news show. The next morning, in answer to a question during a press conference in Los Angeles, Murdoch claimed that he had fired me. When that didn’t fly, he said that I had never been much good anyway. By then, thanks to TV, more people had heard about me than had ever read anything I wrote at the Times or the Post — a lesson about the new world we were all being plunged into.

As it happened, there would be no escape from Rupert Murdoch. After quitting the Post, I went back to writing books for HarperCollins, the publishing house that he had bought. Thank goodness he never seemed to make the connection. Not so far anyway.

Soulmates Without a Soul in Sight

Among the Four Horsemen, Murdoch is surely Famine. Given the sports and gossip-driven sensibility of his newspapers and the role of Fox News as a tool of right-wing and Trumpian political propaganda, he’s helped starve people on at least three continents of the kinds of information they would need to truly grasp our world and make educated decisions about it.

His most reliable collaborator in those years was Roger Ailes, who became the chairman and CEO of Fox News. He would prove so skilled when it came to purveying misinformation that he deserves a horse of his own. And no question about it, Ailes represented War, both against the truth and (within journalism) for circulation, eyeballs, and the clicks that always favor profit over facts.

Of all four horsemen, I had the least personal interaction with him. One evening in 1990 (I think), I went to see him at his poorly lit midtown office. It was evening and I had the feeling he might have been drinking, though he didn’t offer me anything. I was then the host of a nightly local public television show and we wanted to put him on a political panel we were forming. By then, after all, he had successfully advised presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush (though he wouldn’t join Murdoch for another six years). He had blown off all the producers who tried to book him on their shows but had agreed to let me come in for a pitch.

I didn’t know it, but around then he first met his future co-horseman Rush Limbaugh who, at the time, was still trying to invent himself as a radio star. Limbaugh had walked into New York’s posh 21 Club looking for famous people to buttonhole. He soon spotted Ailes but was too intimidated to introduce himself.

As Rush would later tell it, Roger was the one who first swaggered up to him and boomed, “My wife loves you!” Soon after, they began talking and, so Rush reported, he felt that he had met his “soulmate.” Ailes would soon be producing a short-lived Limbaugh TV show. Alas, it would prove long-lived indeed by becoming a model for the bogus news/talk format of Fox News a few years later when Murdoch hired Ailes as the devil’s consigliere. Later, Ailes would use that very position to advise George W. Bush and Donald Trump.

Still, when I met Ailes that was the unknowable future. It comes back to me now as if in a dream, brief and weird. He listened to my description of my show, “The Eleventh Hour,” and why we wanted him as a guest. I may not have been as fawning as I remember myself being. (I hope not anyway.) He nodded along as I made my pitch, offered me the most perfunctory thanks for coming, and dismissed me with body language suggesting that he had checked me out and found nothing he wanted. He simply turned away and began murmuring to a woman I could barely see in the darkened office.

In 2016, after years of commercial and political success together, Murdoch dumped Ailes in the midst of an ever-spreading sex scandal. He had not only personally harassed Fox employees but had created a company-wide climate of abuse and intimidation. He left with a reported $65 million. A year later, he died in Palm Beach (as would Limbaugh four years after that). He was 77.

A “Great Show” for a Great Showman

Of all the horsemen in those years, I spent the most time with Donald Trump. (By now, haven’t we all?) He’s our greatest shame because while we in the media may have thought that we were using him — listening sneeringly to his lies and braggadocio since it pushed our media products so effectively — he was using us bigly. Making the “fake news media” his very own accomplices may have been his greatest skill.

I was no exception to the media patsies who flocked to him for easy stories. Maybe I didn’t take him seriously enough then because we both came from Queens, a scorned outer borough of New York City, or because he was already a well-known publicity hound and boldfaced tabloid name.

Honestly, who could have taken an obvious buffoon like him seriously? And back then, we didn’t have to, as long as we took him. And here’s what I do remember from those days: he would always respond to a question, no matter how negative, as long as he was its subject. That’s all he truly cared about. Him, him, him, and him again.

The first time we met, in the early 1980s — he was then an ambitious real-estate mogul and B-list celebrity — he insisted that he didn’t much like attention, but felt obligated to do the interview because I represented “a great show” (“CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt”). He would then go on to lie about his scheme to pressure the National Football League into admitting to its ranks the New Jersey Generals, the United States Football League team he then owned.

In a later meeting, I remember him offering me his supposed credo as a public figure, one that in retrospect seems grimly ironic, if not satiric: “I tend to think that you should be decent, you should be fair, you should be straight, and you should do the best you can. And beyond that, you can’t do very much really. So yeah, you do have a responsibility.” Then, as if adding a note in the margins of his bland comment, he added, tellingly enough, “I’m not sure to what extent that responsibility holds.”

Once, for reasons I can’t recall, I returned to that supposed sense of “responsibility” of his, asking him if he’d like to “run the country as you have run your organization.” That was in 1984 (no symbolism intended) and he responded, “I would much prefer that somebody else do it. I just don’t know if the somebody else is there.” So, 32 years before his election, he was, it seems, already imagining the unimaginable that would become our very own surreal world in 2016. “This country,” he added ominously, “needs major surgery.”

“Are you the surgeon?” I asked, innocently enough.

“I think I’d do a fantastic job, but I really would prefer not doing it.”

I would have preferred that, too, but it’s much too late now and, sadly enough, there’s no reason to think that the ride of the modern Four Horsemen is over. Limbaugh and Aisles have left their vast poisonous pools behind and they won’t dry up soon. Murdoch, turning 90 just days from now, is still running his empire. And Donald Trump, of course, continues to gallop toward the future astride his pale horse, as the rider called Death.

Copyright 2021 Robert Lipsyte

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.

Robert Lipsyte is a TomDispatch regular and a former sports and city columnist for the New York Times. He is the author, among other works, of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland.

Via Tomdispatch.com

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The Real Threats to America are the Pandemic and Poverty; why Give Ever More Money to the Pentagon? https://www.juancole.com/2021/03/threats-pandemic-pentagon.html Wed, 03 Mar 2021 05:01:08 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=196431 By Mandy Smithberger | –

( Tomdispatch.com) – This country is in a crisis of the first order. More than half a million of us have died thanks to Covid-19. Food insecurity is on the rise, with nearly 24 million Americans going hungry, including 12 million children. Unemployment claims filed since the pandemic began have now reached 93 million. Given the level of damage to the less wealthy parts of this society, it’s little wonder that most Americans chose pandemic recovery (including the quick distribution of vaccines) as their top priority issue.

Keep in mind that our democracy is suffering as well. After all, former president Donald Trump incited an insurrection when he wasn’t able to win at the polls, an assault on the Capitol in which military veterans were overrepresented among those committed to reversing the election results (and endangering legislators as well). If you want a mood-of-the-moment fact, consider this: even after Joe Biden’s election, QAnon followers continued to insist that Trump could still be inaugurated to his second term in office. Addressing economic and political instability at home will take significant resources and focus, including calling to account those who so grossly mishandled the country’s pandemic response and stoked the big lie of questioning the legitimacy of Biden’s election victory.

If, however, you weren’t out here in the real world, but in there where the national security elite exists, you’d find that the chatter would involve few of the problems just mentioned. And only in our world would such a stance seem remarkably disconnected from reality. In their world, the “crisis” part of the present financial crisis is a fear, based on widespread rumors and reports about the Biden budget to come, that the Pentagon’s funding might actually get, if not a genuine haircut, then at least a trim — something largely unheard of in the twenty-first century.

The Pentagon’s boosters and their allies in the defense industry respond to such fears by insisting that no such trim could possibly be in order, that competition with China must be the prime focus of this moment and of the budget to come. Assuming that China’s rise is, in fact, a genuine problem, it’s not one that’s likely to be solved either in the near future or in a military fashion (not, at least, without disaster for the world), and it’s certainly not one that should be prioritized during a catastrophic pandemic.

While there are genuine concerns about what China’s rise might mean for the United States, it’s important to recognize just how much harm those trying to distract us from the very real problems at hand are likely to inflict on our health and actual security. Since the beginning of the pandemic, in fact, those unwilling to accept our failures or respond adequately to the disease at hand have blamed outside forces, most notably China, for otherwise preventable havoc to American lives and the economy.

Trump and his allies tried to shirk accountability for their failure to respond to the pandemic by pushing xenophobic and false characterizations of Covid-19 as the “China virus” or the “kung flu.” In a similar fashion, the national security elites hope that focusing on building up our military and building new nuclear weapons with China in mind will distract time and energy from making needed changes at home. But those urging us to increase Pentagon spending to compete with China in the middle of a pandemic are, in reality, only compounding the damage to our country’s recovery.

Militarizing the Future

Given the last two decades, you won’t be surprised to know that this misplaced assessment of the real threat to the public has a firm grip on Washington right now. As my colleague Dan Grazier at the Project On Government Oversight pointed out recently, confirmation hearings for Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks included more than 70 (sometimes ominous) mentions of China.

So again, no surprise that only a few weeks after those hearings, Biden announced the creation of a new China task force at the Pentagon. As the press announcement made clear, that group is going to be a dream for the military-industrial complex since it will, above all, focus on developing advanced “defense” technologies to stare down the China “threat” and so further militarize the future. In other words, the Pentagon’s projected threat assessments and their wonder-weapon solutions will be at the forefront of Washington thinking — and, therefore, funding, even during this pandemic.

That’s why it’s easy enough to predict where such a task force will lead. A similar panel in 2018, including lobbyists, board members, and contractors from the arms industry, warned that competition with China would require a long-term increase in funding for the Pentagon of 3% to 5%. That could mean an almost unimaginable future Department of Defense budget of $971.9 billion in fiscal year 2024. To pay for it, they suggested, Congress should consider cutting social security and other kinds of safety-net spending.

Even before Covid-19 hit, the economic fragility of so many Americans should have made that kind of recommendation irresponsible. In the midst of a pandemic, it’s beyond dangerous. Still, it betrays a crucial truth about the military-industrial complex: its key figures see the U.S. economy as something that should serve their needs, not the other way around.

Of course, the giants of the weapons industry have long had a direct seat at the table in Washington. Despite being the first Black secretary of defense, for instance, Lloyd Austin III remains typical of the Pentagon establishment in the sense that he comes to the job directly from a seat on the board of directors of weapons giant Raytheon. And he’s in good company. After all, many of the administration’s recent appointees are drawn from key Washington think tanks supported by the weapons industry.

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For instance, more than a dozen former staffers from, or people affiliated with, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) have joined the Biden administration. A recent report by the Revolving Door Project found that CNAS had repeatedly accepted the sort of funding that went comfortably with recommendations it was making that “would directly benefit some of the think tank’s donors, including military contractors and foreign governments.” When it came to confronting China, for instance, CNAS figures urged the Department of Defense to “sustain and enhance” defense contractors so that they would become ever more “robust, flexible, and resilient” in a faceoff with that country.

Sadly, even as the Pentagon’s budget remains largely unchallenged, there’s been a sudden reawakening — especially in Republican ranks — to the version of fiscal conservatism that looks askance at providing relief to communities and businesses suffering around the country. Recent debates in Washington about the latest pandemic relief bill suggest once again that the much-ballyhooed principles of “responsibility” and “fiscal conservatism” apply to everyone — except, of course, the Pentagon.

Putting Covid-19 Relief Spending in Perspective

The price tag for the relief bill presently being debated in Congress, $1.9 trillion, is certainly significant, but it’s not far from the kind of taxpayer support national security agencies normally receive every year. In 2020, for instance, the real national security budget request surpassed $1.2 trillion. That request included not only the Pentagon, but other costs of war, including care for veterans and military retirement benefits.

Over the years, such costs have proven monumental. The Department of Defense alone, for example, has received more than $10.6 trillion over the past 20 years. That included $2 trillion for its overseas contingency operations account, a war-fighting fund used by both the Pentagon and lawmakers to circumvent congressionally imposed spending caps. Reliance on that account, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office assured Congress, only made it likelier that taxpayers would fund more expensive and less optimal solutions to America’s forever wars.

In the past, the justification for such excessive national-security spending rested on the idea that the Defense Department was the key to keeping Americans safe. As a result, the Pentagon’s ever-escalating requests for money were approved by Congress year after year without real opposition. Disproportionate funding for that institution has, however, come at a significant cost.

Caps on non-defense spending under the Budget Control Act of 2011 meant that civilian agencies were already underfunded when the pandemic hit. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities pointed out, “Overall funding for programs outside veterans’ medical care remains below its level a decade ago.” The consequences of that underspending can also be seen in our crumbling roads and infrastructure, to which, in its last report in 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave a D+ — and the situation has only grown worse since then.

Job protection is the other common refrain for those defending high funding levels for the Pentagon and, during a pandemic with such devastating employment consequences, such a concern can hardly be dismissed. But studies have consistently shown that military spending is a remarkably poor job creator compared to almost any other kind of spending. Some of us may still remember World War II’s Rosie the Riveter and mid-twentieth-century union support for defense budgets as engines for job creation. Those assumptions are, however, sorely out of date. Investing in healthcare, combating climate change, or rebuilding infrastructure are all significantly more effective job creators than yet more military spending.

Of course, non-military stimulus spending has been far from perfect. Even measuring the effects of the first relief package passed by Congress has proven difficult, especially since the Trump administration ignored the law when it came to reporting on just how many jobs that spending either preserved or created. Still, there’s no question that non-military stimulus efforts are more effective, by orders of magnitude, than defense spending when it comes to job creation.

Needed: A New Funding Strategy to Weather Future Storms

The uncomfortable truth (even for those who would like to see a trillion dollars in annual Pentagon spending) is that such funding won’t make us safer, possibly far less so. Recent studies of preventable military aviation crashes indicate that, disturbingly enough, given the way the Pentagon spends taxpayer funds, more money can actually make us less safe.

Somewhere along the line in this pandemic moment, Washington needs to redefine the meaning of both “national security” and “national interest.” In a world in which California burns and Texas freezes, in which more than half-a-million Americans have already been felled by Covid-19, it’s time to recognize how damaging the over-funding of the Pentagon and a myopic focus on an ever more militarized cold war with China are likely to be to this country. As the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft’s Stephen Wertheim has argued, it’s increasingly clear that an American strategy focused on chasing global military supremacy into the distant future no longer serves any real definition of national interest.

Vanderbilt law professor Ganesh Sitaraman recently pointed out at Foreign Affairs that “the coming era will be one of health crises, climate shocks, cyberattacks, and geoeconomic competition among great powers. What unites those seemingly disparate threats is that each is not so much a battle to be won as a challenge to be weathered.” While traditional defense threats still loom large in what passes for national debate in Washington, the most likely (and potentially most devastating) threats to public health and safety aren’t actually in the Pentagon’s wheelhouse.

Weathering those future crises will continue to require innovation and creativity, which means ensuring that we are investing adequately not in the hypersonic weaponry of some future imagined war but in education and public health now. Particularly in the near term, as we try to rebuild jobs and businesses lost to this pandemic, even the Pentagon must be forced to make better use of the staggering resources it already receives from increasingly embattled American taxpayers. Rushing to produce yet more useless (and sometimes poorly produced) weapons systems and technology will only increase the fragility of both the military and the civilian society it’s supposed to protect.

Make no mistake: the addiction to Pentagon spending is a bipartisan problem in Washington. Still, change is in order. The problems we face at home are too overwhelming to be ignored. We can’t continue to let the appetites of the military-industrial complex crowd out the needs of the rest of us.

Copyright 2021 Mandy Smithberger

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.

Mandy Smithberger, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO).

Via Tomdispatch.com

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The Unpatriots: What the Storming of the Capitol looks Like to a Military Spouse https://www.juancole.com/2021/03/unpatriots-storming-military.html Mon, 01 Mar 2021 05:01:00 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=196406 By Andrea Mazzarino | –

( Tomdispatch.com) – “Are you okay?” asked a friend and military spouse in the voicemail she left me on the afternoon the mob of Trump supporters breached the Capitol so violently. At home with a new baby, her Navy reservist husband stationed in Germany, the thoughts running through her head that day would prove remarkably similar to mine. As she said when we spoke, “It’s as if the U.S. has become a war zone.”

Do a Google search and you’ll find very little suggesting that the January 6th attack on the Capitol in any way resembled a war. A notable exception: a Washington Post op-ed by former Missouri secretary of state and Afghanistan combat veteran Jason Kander. He saw that day’s violence for the combat it was and urged congressional representatives and others who bore the brunt of those “armed insurrectionists” to seek help (as, to his regret, he hadn’t done after his tours of duty in combat zones).

Now, take a look back at that “riot” and tell me how it differs from a military attack: President Trump asked his supporters to “fight like hell” or “you’re not going to have a country anymore.” He swore he would go with them, though he didn’t, of course, just as those who launched and continued our “forever wars” of the last almost 20 years sent Americans to fight abroad without ever doing so themselves. Trump’s small army destroyed property with their metal baseball bats and other implements of aggression, in one case even planted pipe bombs near Republican and Democratic party headquarters (that didn’t go off), and looted congressional chambers, including carrying away House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s lectern.

The rioters used intimidation against those in the Capitol. Some screamed insults like “traitor” and the n-word (reserved, of course, for the black police officers protecting Congress). One rioter wore a sweatshirt emblazed with the words “Camp Auschwitz,” a reference to the Nazi death camp. Make no mistake: the America these rioters envisioned was one full of hate and disdain for difference.

In their disregard for pandemic safety protocols, they employed the equivalent of biological warfare against lawmakers and the Capitol police, breaking into the building, screaming and largely unmasked during a pandemic, forcing lawmakers to jam into enclosed spaces to save (but also endanger) their own lives. The rioters smeared blood on walls and on the busts of former presidents. Their purpose was clear: to overturn democratic processes by brute force in the name of what they saw as an existential threat to their country, the certification of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as president and vice president.

Among those aggressors were veterans and some active-duty personnel from elite U.S. combat forces (as well as from police departments) who brought years of expertise to bear on orchestrating an attempted takeover of our government, based — much like the costliest of our still-ongoing wars, the one in Iraq — on lies told by their commander in chief (“Stop the steal!”).

My Own Personal War

To fight wars, you need to summon a mix of rage, adrenaline, and disregard for the humanity of those whose project you seek to annihilate. That seemed evident in the mob of the supposedly pro-law-and-order president that attacked Congress, their acts leading to five deaths – including that of Capitol Hill police officer Brian Sicknick, a former New Jersey Air National Guard member. More than 140 police officers who tried to protect lawmakers sustained injuries: Some, who were not given helmets prior to that day, are now living with brain injuries (which, as a therapist, I can assure are likely to come with debilitating lifelong implications). Another officer has two cracked ribs and smashed spinal disks. Yet another was stabbed by a rioter with a metal fence stake. Still another lost his eye.

These deaths and injuries will have ripple effects for the spouses, children, friends, employers, and others in the communities where those officers live. And they do not include the countless invisible injuries (such as post-traumatic stress disorder) that result from such war-like scenarios. In this respect, the cost of armed violence to human life is incalculable.

While that attack on the Capitol was underway, at the tiny community mental health clinic where I work as a therapist, I was speaking to clients who had migrated here from countries plagued by armed conflict. I listened to concerns that the far-right nationalist attack on the Capitol would, sooner or later, inspire violence against their own families. After all, those storming the Capitol backed a president who had referred to immigrants as “animals” and whose administration had put the children of undocumented migrants in cages – or sub-prison like conditions with zero-provision for their care. In the days after the attack, an acquaintance of mine, an African American man, was indeed pursued by a carful of people wearing Trump hats and shouting racial slurs. (They slowed their vehicle and followed him down the road towards his Maryland apartment.)

The day of the riots, I arrived home from my job to find my husband, a Naval officer, in front of the television news, tears in his eyes and sweat dripping down his face. My children, unprepared for bed (as they should have been), were staring at him in confusion. That night, he and I bolted awake at every sound, as we had in the weeks after Trump was first elected.

Of course, given our incomes and our home in the countryside outside Washington, D.C., we were about as far from danger as one could imagine. Still, our sense of distress was acute. After the riot was over, my husband, gritting his teeth, wondered: “Why aren’t the Capitol floors covered in rioters in zip ties right now?” We noted that, if there had been Black Lives Matter slogans and black fists on the flags and banners those rioters were carrying, the National Guard would have arrived quickly.

As time wore on, my husband and I attempted to comfort each another and explain those televised scenes of violence to our two children, four and five, who had been stunned both by glimpses of what grownups could do and by how visibly upset their father had become. And we weren’t alone. I soon found myself scrolling through texts and voicemails from other military spouses with similar fears who wanted to know if my husband and I were okay and if the violence in the Capitol had made it anywhere near our home.

In our minds, fearful scenarios were playing out about what January 6th might mean for military families like ours — and little wonder, since in those tense two weeks before Joe Biden’s inauguration, the military still answered to a commander in chief who had visibly incited the possible takeover of our government. What would the military members of our families be asked to do in the days to come, we wondered, and by whom? What would have happened if those rioters had actually succeeded in hanging Mike Pence or slaughtering other members of Congress?

Preparing for War

In truth, in Donald Trump’s America, my spouse and I had been conjuring up scenarios of violence for months. We had found ourselves obsessed with the fears of rising political violence in what, during wartime, used to be known as the home front in the country with the most heavily armed civilian population on Earth. (I had even written about that very subject in those very months.) No wonder then that, before November 3rd, I was so focused not just on dispelling Trumpian disinformation about the election to come, but on helping voters locate their polling stations and finding transportation to them.

As it happens, my husband’s jobs in recent years have often involved anticipating war and what our military would do if Americans ever faced it on our own soil. He’s served as an officer on a battleship and three nuclear and ballistic-missile armed submarines. He’s had to collect intelligence under the leadership of presidents with very different levels of impulse control. Most recently, he’s worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff thinking through scenarios in which the United States might be engaged in nuclear war — and what the costs might be.

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Together, we have been amazed at how few Americans, other than our fellow military families, have been preoccupied with the violence beginning to unfold on our nation’s streets and the way, in some strange fashion, America’s distant, never-ending wars of these last nearly 20 years were threatening to come home.

One lesson of these years, in an America with an “all-volunteer” military, is that wars essentially don’t exist unless you’re directly or indirectly involved in fighting them. At no time did that seem more evident to me than on January 6th, in the divergent responses of my own family and those we know who aren’t in the military. If you’re interested (as I am as a co-founder of Brown University’s Costs of War Project) in how, during these years, voters and their representatives have justified (or simply ignored) the decision to “solve” our global problems with unending war, then you might frame what happened on January 6th in these terms: some 74 million Americans voted for a president who portrayed those who disagreed with him as existential threats to America.

In the meantime, for almost two decades our government has invested staggering, almost unimaginable sums in this country’s military machine (and the war-making industries linked to it), while diverting funds from key social services, ranging from healthcare to domestic job creation. Meanwhile, it has consistently “retired” military-grade weaponry from our war zones into the hands of police departments across the country and so onto our city streets. I mean, given such a formula, what could possibly go wrong? Why would anyone connected to the military be worried?

Of course, why wouldn’t we worry, since we — or our loved ones — are the people who are ordered to participate when wars of any kind happen?

The Isolation of Military Service

There are about two million Americans who serve in the U.S. military and 2.6 million more who are military spouses and dependents. Altogether that’s just a little more than 1% of our entire population. We are, believe me, in another world of fears and worries than the rest of you. We’ve been involved, directly or indirectly, in fighting those godforsaken wars launched after 9/11 for almost two decades now. You haven’t. You’ve generally thanked us religiously for our “service” and otherwise forgotten about those wars and gone about your business. We haven’t. Our sense of the world, our fears, are different than yours.

We military spouses are charged with comforting and caring for those who serve, especially (but not exclusively) when they are sent to one of the many countries where that never-ending “war on terror” continues to be fought into the Biden years. Caring for those who serve is no small task in a country where the very act of trying to get mental-health care could be a career-ending move for a soldier. Families are often their only recourse.

Military spouses also care for children in mourning, temporarily or in some cases permanently, over the loss of a parent. In an anemic military healthcare system, we are often left to marshal the necessary care for ourselves and our children, even as many of us struggle with depression, anxiety, and trauma thanks to the multiple, often unpredictable deployments of those very loved ones and being left alone to imagine what they’re going through. According to a recent op-ed by my colleague and military spouse Aleha Landry, approximately 25% of us are unemployed in this Covid-19 moment. On average, we also earn 27% less than our counterparts in the civilian world, not least of all because the burden of childcare and frequent redeployments prevent us from moving up in our chosen fields of work.

In this pandemic-stricken, distinctly over-armed world of ours, in which nationalist militia groups (often with veterans among them) backing the former president continue to talk about war right here in what, after 9/11, we came to call “the homeland,” it’s not surprising how increasingly anxious people like me have come to feel. Personally, what January 6th brought home was this: as a military spouse, I was living in a community that didn’t know my family, while my husband, in his own personal hell of hypothetical nuclear wars, could be called upon at any time to represent a president who had incited an assault on the Capitol, leaving my children and me alone. And that, believe me, was scary.

I was struck, for instance, that a military spouse I became friends with and who occupied a very different part of the political spectrum from me nonetheless feared that, in the event of conflict, she would be vulnerable — and it wasn’t just foreign conflicts that she was worrying about after Trump was elected. At one point, her husband had told her, “If you see a flash in the sky, then take the kids and drive in this direction,” indicating a spot on the map where he felt, based on wind patterns, nuclear fallout was less likely to blow. After the Charlottesville Unite the Right riot of 2017, she stocked up on food, water, and extra gas so she could head for Canada if armed conflict broke out among Americans. “We’d be alone,” she told me, “because obviously, he’d be gone.”

Stopping Our Endless Wars

These, then, are the sorts of fears that arise in my militarized world on this careening planet of ours. Yes, Joe Biden is now president, but this country is still on edge. And the military that’s been fighting those hopeless, bloody wars in distant lands for so long is on edge, too. After all, military personnel were present in significant numbers in that mob on January 6th. Almost one in five members of Trump’s invading crew were reportedly veterans or active military personnel.

Sometimes, the people I feel closest to (when I do my work for the Costs of War Project) are the women who must mother and maintain households in the places my country has had such a hand in turning into constant war zones. Right now, there exist millions of people living in just such places where the anticipation of air raids, drone attacks, suicide bombings, snipers, or sophisticated roadside IEDs is a daily reality. Already, over 335,000 civilians (and counting) have been killed in those foreign war zones of ours. Mothers and their children in such lands are often cut off from hospitals, reliable food, clean water, or the infrastructure that would help them get to school, work, or the doctor. Unlike most Americans, they don’t have the luxury of forgetting about war. Their spouses and children are in constant danger.

Democrat or Republican, the presidents of the past 20 years are responsible for the violence that continues in those war zones and for the (not unrelated) violence that has begun to unfold at home — and even, thank you very much, for my own family’s fears and fantasies about war, up close and personal. It’s about time that all of us in this disturbed country of ours at least bear witness to what such violence means for those living it and start thinking about what the United States should do to stop it. It can’t just be the most vulnerable and directly involved among us who lose sleep — not to speak of lives, limbs, mental stability, and livelihoods — due to the cloistered decisions of our public leaders.

Believe this at least: if we can’t stop fighting those wars across significant parts of the planet, this country won’t remain immune to them either. It hasn’t, in fact. It’s just that so many of us have yet to fully take that in.

Copyright 2021 Andrea Mazzarino

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.

Andrea Mazzarino, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded Brown University’s Costs of War Project. She has held various clinical, research, and advocacy positions, including at a Veterans Affairs PTSD Outpatient Clinic, with Human Rights Watch, and at a community mental health agency. She is the co-editor of War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Demilitarizing Our Democracy: How the National Security State Has Come to Dominate a “Civilian” Government https://www.juancole.com/2021/01/demilitarizing-democracy-government.html Fri, 29 Jan 2021 05:01:07 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=195826 By Mandy Smithberger and William Hartung | –

( Tomdispatch.com ) – This month’s insurrection at the Capitol revealed the dismal failure of the Capitol Police and the Department of Defense to use their expertise and resources to thwart a clear and present danger to our democracy. As the government reform group Public Citizen tweeted, “If you’re spending $740,000,000,000 annually on ‘defense’ but fascists dressed for the renaissance fair can still storm the Capitol as they please, maybe it’s time to rethink national security?”

At a time of acute concern about the health of our democracy, any such rethinking must, among other things, focus on strengthening the authority of civilians and civilian institutions over the military in an American world where almost the only subject the two parties in Congress can agree on is putting up ever more money for the Pentagon. This means so many in our political system need to wean themselves from the counterproductive habit of reflexively seeking out military or retired military voices to validate them on issues ranging from public health to border security that should be quite outside the military’s purview.

It’s certainly one of the stranger phenomena of our era: after 20 years of endless war in which trillions of dollars were spent and hundreds of thousands died on all sides without the U.S. military achieving anything approaching victory, the Pentagon continues to be funded at staggering levels, while funding to deal with the greatest threats to our safety and “national security” — from the pandemic to climate change to white supremacy — proves woefully inadequate. In good times and bad, the U.S. military and the “industrial complex” that surrounds it, which President Dwight D. Eisenhower first warned us about in 1961, continue to maintain a central role in Washington, even though they’re remarkably irrelevant to the biggest challenges facing our democracy.

These days, it’s completely normal for military and defense officials to weigh in endlessly on what once would have been civilian matters. As the Biden years begin, it’s time to give some serious thought to how to demilitarize our democracy.

Unfortunately, in the America of 2021, the short-term benefit of relying on the widely accepted credibility of military figures to promote policies of every sort is obvious indeed. Who in the political class in the nation’s capital wouldn’t want a stamp of approval from dozens of generals, active or retired, endorsing their favorite initiative or candidate? (It’s something in years past the authors of this piece have been guilty of as well.) As it happens, though, such approval comes at a high price, undermining as it does the authority of civilian officials and agencies, while skewing resources toward the Pentagon that should be invested elsewhere to keep us truly safe.

It’s an essential attribute of the American system that the military remains under civilian authority. These days, however, given the number of current or retired military officers who have become key arbiters of what we should do on a dizzying array of critical issues, civilian control is the policy equivalent of an endangered species.

In the last election season, long before the attack on the Capitol, there was already an intense national discussion about how to prevent violence at the polls, a conversation that all too quickly (and disturbingly) focused on what role the military should play in the process. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was repeatedly asked to provide assurances that it would have no role in determining the outcome of the election, something that in another America would have been a given.

Meanwhile, some actually sought more military involvement. For example, in a widely debated “open letter” to Milley, retired Army officers John Nagl and Paul Yingling stated that “if Donald Trump refuses to leave office at the expiration of his constitutional term, the United States military must remove him by force, and you must give that order.” Proposals of this sort undermine the integrity of the many laws Congress and the states have put in place to prevent the military or armed vigilantes from playing any role in the electoral process.

Similarly, both former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden have identified the military as a key future player in distributing the Covid-19 vaccine, something that could and should be handled by public-health institutions, if only they, like the Pentagon, had adequate resources.

The Military Knows Best?

During and after the attack on the Capitol, officials from the military and national security worlds were given pride of place in discussions about the future of our democracy. Their opinions were sought out by the media and others on a wide range of issues that fell well outside their primary areas of expertise. A letter from 10 former secretaries of defense calling on the Republican caucus to respect the results of the election was given headline attention, while political figures pressed to have retired military officers involved in the January 6th assault tried in military, not civilian, courts.

Before pursuing the second impeachment of Donald Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi typically turned to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs (who isn’t even in the civilian chain of command) to seek assurance that he could stop the president from starting a last-minute nuclear war. And none of this was faintly unusual, given that retired military officers have regularly been asked to weigh in on subjects as varied as abortion rights, climate change, and childhood obesity. It’s not, of course, that such figures shouldn’t be able, like anyone else, to offer their opinions or support on matters of public health and safety, but that their voices shouldn’t matter more than those of public-health experts, scientists, medical professionals, or other civilians.

Despite its failure to win a war in decades, the military remains one of America’s most respected institutions, getting the kind of appreciation that generally doesn’t extend to other more successful public servants. After almost 20 years of forever wars, it’s hard, at this point, to accept that the military’s reputation for wisdom is deserved. In fact, continually relying on retired generals and other present or former national security officials as validators effectively erodes the credibility of, and the public’s trust in, other institutions that are meant to keep us healthy and safe.

In the Covid-19 moment, it should be clear that relying on narrowly defined notions of national security harms our democracy, a subject that none of those military or former military figures are likely to deal with. In addition, in all too many cases, current and retired military officials have abused the public trust in ways that call into question their right to serve as judges of what’s important, or even to imagine that they could provide objective advice. For one thing, a striking number of high-ranking officers on leaving the military pass through the infamous revolving door of the military-industrial complex into positions as executives, lobbyists, board members, or consultants for the defense industry. They work on behalf of firms like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Dynamics that receive a combined $100 billion annually in Pentagon contracts with little accountability, even as they remain key go-to media figures.

They then use their former rank and the prestige attached to it to lobby Congress and influence the media on the need for endless wars and an ever-increasing military budget to support major weapons programs like Lockheed Martin’s troubled F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — all without bothering to disclose that they stand to gain financially from the positions they’re taking. And the prospect of a big, fat salary in the weapons sector upon retirement also exerts an unhealthy influence on officers still serving in the military who are often loath to anger, or in any way alienate, their potential future employers.

This revolving-door phenomenon is widespread. A study by the Project on Government Oversight found that, in 2018 alone, there were 645 cases in which the top 20 defense contractors hired former government officials, military officers, members of Congress, and senior congressional legislative staff as lobbyists, board members, or executives. This should hardly inspire public trust in their opinions.

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In some cases, ex-military officers have even taken to the airwaves and the op-ed pages of newspapers to advocate for war without disclosing their ties to the arms industry. A 2008 New York Times investigation, for example, revealed that a number of retired-officers-turned-media pundits with continuing defense industry ties had, for years, advocated for the Iraq War at the Pentagon’s behest. Ex-generals like former Trump administration Defense Secretary James Mattis, who served on the board of General Dynamics before taking the helm of the Pentagon and returned there shortly after stepping down, too often use their stature to refrain from providing basic information to the media while befogging the transparency and accountability that should be a pillar of democracy.

The Politicization of the Military

When civilian voices and policies are eclipsed as the central determinants in how our democracy should operate, a larger dilemma arises: continuing to rely on the military as a primary source of judgment for what’s right or wrong in the civilian world risks politicizing the armed forces, too. From retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn leading chants of “Lock her up!” at the 2016 Republican National Convention to the competition between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as well as, in the 2020 election campaign, between Joe Biden and Donald Trump to see who could get more retired generals to endorse him or her only helps militarize the civilian election process and politicizes what should be a nonpartisan institution.

Given the more than a trillion dollars Americans annually invest in the national security state, it’s striking to note, for instance, how such institutions let us down when it came to addressing the threats of white nationalism. Last summer, the Intercept uncovered a buried FBI report on the shortcomings of various federal agencies when it came to dealing with domestic terrorism. Before the 2020 election, the bureau refused to release that report on the domestic threat of white supremacy. Last year, in a similar fashion, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) withheld for months its assessment of the same “lethal” threat of racist extremism in this country.

While there must be a full investigation of what happened at the Capitol on January 6th, reports seem to indicate a striking blindness in the national security state to the possibility of such an attack. It’s not that the DHS, the FBI, or the military need an influx of new funds to face the problem. Rather, what’s needed at this moment in history is a clearer focus on the real risks to our country, which have little to do with foreign terrorists, the Taliban, or other such groups the U.S. has been fighting abroad for years on end. The Department of Defense typically did itself and the rest of us no favors by burying a report on widespread racism in the ranks of the military, which, though completed in 2017, didn’t see the light of day until this January. Only in the aftermath of the riot at the Capitol did that organization finally begin to truly address its own white-supremacy problems.

The military, like so many other American institutions, has failed to reckon seriously with deep-seated racism in its ranks. Even before the January 6th insurrection, it was clear that such racism made it nearly impossible for Black officers to be promoted. And while many questioned the naming of key military bases after Confederate generals, the issue has only recently been addressed (over a presidential veto at that) with the creation of a new commission to rename them. Reports of active duty, reserve, and veteran members of the military aiding the Capitol insurrection only bring into stark relief the inexcusable costs of not having addressed the problem earlier.

More Pentagon Spending Won’t Make Us Safer

There are also high costs to be paid for relying on the Department of Defense to handle problems that have nothing to do with its primary mission. Using the armed forces as key players in addressing crises that aren’t military in nature only further undermines civilian institutions and is often counterproductive as well.

In the initial stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, a number of politicians called for President Trump to use the Defense Production Act (as it seems Biden will indeed soon do) and the Department of Defense to ramp up the production of N95 masks, ventilators, and other personal protective equipment. The story of what happened to such funds in the Trump years should be telling. The Washington Post discovered that $1 billion in supposed pandemic relief money was instead funneled directly to defense contractors and $70 million of the funds the Pentagon spent went to ventilators that proved unfit for Covid-19 patients. While some of that money did go to bolster mask supply chains, another Post investigation discovered that such efforts did not come close to addressing national shortfalls and amounted to less than the department spends on instruments, uniforms, and travel for military bands.

Perhaps the most disturbing cost of our overreliance on the military can be found in Congress’s budget and policy priorities. In December of last year, a bill to authorize nearly $740 billion in Pentagon spending garnered enough votes to easily overcome President Trump’s veto (motivated mainly by his refusal to condone renaming military bases named after Confederate generals) at the very moment when Congress was blocking legislation to give $2,000 relief checks directly to Covid-19 embattled Americans.

By now, two decades into the twenty-first century, it’s clear that more money for the Pentagon hasn’t made this country safer. It has, however, helped give the military an ever more central role in our previously civilian political world. Biden’s selection of retired General Lloyd Austin III to be secretary of defense only emphasizes this point. While it’s certainly laudatory to appoint the first Black leader to that position, Austin has retired so recently that he needed a congressional waiver from a law requiring a seven-year cooling off period before taking up such a civilian post (just as Mattis did four years ago) — another sign that civilian control of the military is continuing to weaken. In addition, now that he has retired from his role in private industry, Austin stands to make a small fortune, up to $1.7 million, when he divests his stock holdings in Raytheon Technologies.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” President Eisenhower warned Americans in his 1961 farewell address. How right he proved to be! Sixty years later, it’s become all too clear that more must be done to deal with that very “unwarranted influence.” The immediate crises of the American republic should be clear enough right now: responding to the pandemic and restoring our civilian democracy. Certainly, military leaders like Milley should be appreciated for agreeing on the need to prioritize the pandemic and oppose sedition. However, more Pentagon spending and more military influence will not, in the end, make us any safer.

Copyright 2021 Mandy Smithberger and William D. Hartung

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.

Mandy Smithberger, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO).

William D. Hartung, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

Via Tomdispatch.com

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How Bush’s Wars led to Trump’s Insurrection: From Occupying Iraq to Occupying the Capitol https://www.juancole.com/2021/01/insurrection-occupying-capitol.html Mon, 25 Jan 2021 05:01:37 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=195743 By Andrea Mazzarino | –

( Tomdispatch.com) – “I got out of the Marines and within a few years, 15 of my buddies had killed themselves,” one veteran rifleman who served two tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq between 2003 and 2011 said to me recently. “One minute they belonged and the next, they were out, and they couldn’t fit in. They had nowhere to work, no one who related to them. And they had these PTSD symptoms that made them react in ways other Americans didn’t.”

This veteran’s remark may seem striking to many Americans who watched this country’s post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere unfold in an early display of pyrotechnic air raids and lines of troops and tanks moving through desert landscapes, and then essentially stopped paying attention. As a co-founder of Brown University’s Costs of War Project, as well as a military spouse who has written about and lived in a reasonably up-close-and-personal way through the costs of almost two decades of war in the Greater Middle East and Africa, my Marine acquaintance’s comments didn’t surprise me.

Quite the opposite. In the sort of bitter terms I’m used to, they only confirmed what I already knew: that most of war’s suffering doesn’t happen in the moment of combat amid the bullets, bombs, and ever-more-sophisticated IEDs on America’s foreign battlefields. Most of it, whether for soldiers or civilians, happens indirectly, thanks to the way war destroys people’s minds, its wear and tear on their bodies, and what it does to the delicate systems that uphold society’s functioning like hospitals, roads, schools, and most of all, families and communities that must survive amid so much loss.

Combat Deaths: The Tip of the Iceberg

A major task of the Costs of War Project has been to document the death toll among uniformed American troops from our post-9/11 wars, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq. Compared to the 400,000 American deaths (and still climbing) from Covid-19 in less than a year, the approximately 7,000 American military deaths from those wars over almost two decades seem, if anything, small indeed (though, of course, that total doesn’t include thousands of military contractors who also fought and died on the American side). Even for me, as an activist and also a psychotherapist who bears witness to human suffering on a fairly regular basis, it’s easy enough to grow desensitized to the words “more than 7,000,” since my life hasn’t been threatened by combat daily.

Indeed, 7,000 is a small number compared not just to Covid-19 deaths here but to the 335,000-plus deaths of civilians in our war zones since 2001. It doesn’t even measure up to the 110,000 (and counting) Iraqi, Afghan, and other allied soldiers and police killed in our wars. However, 7,000 isn’t so small when you think about what the loss of one life in combat means to the larger circle of people in that person’s community.

To focus only on the numbers of American combat deaths ignores two key issues. First, every single combat death in Iraq and Afghanistan has ripple effects here at home. As the wife of a submarine officer who has completed four sea tours and who, as a Pentagon staffer, has had to deal with war’s carnage in detail, I’ve been intimately involved in numerous communities grieving over military deaths and sustaining wounds years after the bodies have been buried. Parents, spouses, children, siblings, and friends of soldiers who have been killed in action live with survivor’s guilt, depression, anxiety, and sometimes addiction to alcohol or drugs.

Families, many with young children, struggle to pay the rent, purchase food, or cover healthcare premiums and copays after losing the person who was often the sole source of family income. Communities have lost workers, volunteers, and neighbors at a time of mass illness and unrest just when we need those who can sustain intense pressure, problem solve, and work across class, party, and racial lines – in other words, our soldiers. (And yes, while the storming of the Capitol earlier this month included military veterans, I have no doubt that the majority of U.S. troops and veterans would prefer to be shot before getting involved in such a nightmare.)

Second, as the testimony of the former Marine I interviewed suggests, many people suffer and die long after the battles they fought in are over. Social scientists still know very little about the magnitude of deaths because of — but not in — war’s battles. Still, a 2008 study by the Geneva Declaration Secretariat estimated that indirect deaths from war are at least four times as high as deaths sustained in combat.

At the Costs of War Project, we’ve started to examine the effects of war on human health and mortality, particularly in America’s war zones. There, people die in childbirth because hospitals or clinics have been destroyed. They die because there are no longer the doctors or the necessary equipment to detect cancer early enough or even more common problems like infections. They die because roads have been bombed or are unsafe to travel on. They die from malnutrition because farms, factories, and the infrastructure to transport food have all been reduced to rubble. They die because the only things available and affordable to anesthetize them from emotional and physical pain may be opioids, alcohol, or other dangerous substances. They die because the healthcare workers who might have treated them for, or immunized them against, once obsolete illnesses like polio have been intimidated from doing their work. And of course, as is evident from our own skyrocketing military suicide rates, they die by their own hands.

It’s very hard to count up such deaths, but as a therapist who works with U.S. military families and people who have emigrated from dozens of often war-torn countries around the world, the mechanisms by which war creates indirect death seem all too clear to me: you find that, in the post-war moment, you can’t sleep, let alone get through your day, without debris on the highway, a strange look from someone, or an unexpected loud noise outside sparking terror.

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If the stress hormones coursing through your body don’t wreak their own havoc in the form of painful chronic illnesses like fibromyalgia or mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, then the methods you use to cope like overeating, reckless driving, or substance abuse, very well might. If you are a child or the spouse of someone who has lived through repeated deployments to America’s twenty-first-century wars, then there’s a significant chance you’ll be on the receiving end of physical violence from someone who lacks the tools and self-control to deal peacefully. We aren’t counting or even describing such injuries and the deaths that can sometimes result from them, but we do need to find a way.

A Gaping Hole in Our Knowledge

My colleagues and I have started to examine the indirect costs of war through interviews with people who have born witness to war or lived through it, as has the U.S. government through its own limited collection of statistics. For example, in 2018, some 18 American active-duty military personnel or veterans died by suicide each day. (Yes, daily.) But all we really know so far is this: self-inflicted deaths from violence, car accidents, substance abuse, and chronic stress that can be traced back to this country’s post-9/11 wars are problems that plague military communities, and they didn’t exist at this magnitude before Washington decided to respond to the 9/11 attacks by invading Afghanistan and then Iraq.

Still, we have remarkably little information about the scope and nature of such problems. I’ll tell you what I do know with certainty, though: the only consistent and cohesive institutions sustaining troops home from America’s battle zones are the “families,” formal and informal, of servicemembers and the communities in which they live — not just their spouses and children, but also extended families, neighbors, and friends. When it comes to the more formal support structures — Veterans Affairs hospitals and outpatient clinics, providers that accept military insurance, small nonprofits that provide recreational and other forms of support and the like — there just aren’t enough of them.

It’s common knowledge in my community that referral processes and wait times for such aid are often long and stressful. If you’re a veteran seeking help, it’s likely that you’ll find yourself having to switch doctors more than once a year, rather than getting the continuity of care you might need to treat complex physical and emotional trauma. Meanwhile, childcare and other kinds of supportive caregiving that might help control neglect and abuse are laughably sparse.

As the upper-middle-class wife of an officer in a family that enjoys the benefit of dual incomes, I can still offer examples from my own life and community that should raise questions about how someone with fewer resources and already under the stress that accompanies multiple “tours” of America’s battle zones can survive. My husband and I had to pull years’ worth of retirement savings from our bank account to afford a lifesaving prenatal treatment for me that military insurance would not then fund (though it would indeed be covered later) — a problem that could have been avoided had the customer service representatives of the Department of Defense’s health and medical program, Tricare, been appropriately funded and trained.

The wife of an officer we know whose son has autism had to go through months of letter-writing and advocacy to receive care both for that boy and her other young child so she could apply for jobs and travel to her own medical appointments during her husband’s multiple deployments. (Tricare would only fund care for one child, leaving her watching the other.) Active-duty and veteran servicemembers I know regularly drink and use drugs heavily each night to calm their anxieties and post-traumatic stress symptoms sufficiently to sit through family dinners, watch our ever-more-distressing news, or get a few hours of sleep.

Many fear seeking mental-health treatment because of the real threat that, in the military, exposure for doing so will result in professional demotion. We live in an era where so much depends on competent, trustworthy security to shield us from the dual threats of a deadly pandemic and domestic terrorism and yet our security forces often lead lives that are problematic indeed. The toll in such lives — what might be thought of as indirect deaths from combat — that we’ve endorsed by failing to welcome home and provide adequately for the some two million servicemembers who have fought in “our” wars should be a focus of our attention and yet is largely unnoticed.

A Defense Bill That Defends Little

With such human costs of war in mind, it’s a wonder to me that the only bipartisan bill passed by Congress over a presidential veto in the Trump years was the recent monumentally funded $740 billion “defense” bill. It included spending for yet more weapons production, as well as salary raises, among other measures that were meant to shore up the fighting power of our active-duty troops (after 19-plus years of unsuccessful wars abroad).

Most striking to me, however, amid its massive support for the military-industrial complex, is how little that bill does to expand social support for military families. There is indeed a modest increase in daycare assistance for troops’ family members with disabilities, as well as limits to increased copays for those who use their military insurance in their communities. Missing totally, however, are key structural changes like protections for soldiers who seek mental healthcare, more robust job-training programs for those desiring to transition into the civilian workforce, greater accountability for Tricare when it comes to providing accurate information on services available in the community, and expanded childcare support for military families.

Indeed, what’s most notable about that bill’s very existence is how the leaders of both political parties keep funding war spending above all else, especially given that our foreign wars of this century have accomplished little of discernible value beyond making a mess that may never be cleaned up. To me, what that bill truly represented was the massive and unseen costs of America’s post-9/11 wars at home and abroad.

It seems that we Americans still care more about waging war in distant lands than about protecting our own people right here at home. Indirect deaths from our conflicts are a reality, however little noticed they may be. Isn’t it time to begin weaving a genuine safety net, allowing vulnerable Americans who fought in those very wars to be better supported so that, no longer committing senseless violence against others, they don’t commit it on themselves?

Copyright 2021 Andrea Mazzarino

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.

Andrea Mazzarino, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded Brown University’s Costs of War Project. She has held various clinical, research, and advocacy positions, including at a Veterans Affairs PTSD Outpatient Clinic, with Human Rights Watch, and at a community mental health agency. She is the co-editor of War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Via Tomdispatch.com

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