Tomdispatch – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Wed, 27 Oct 2021 05:33:55 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Path to a Livable Future: Or Will Rich Corporations Trash the Planet? Mon, 25 Oct 2021 04:02:01 +0000 By Noam Chomsky and Stan Cox | –

( – This month will mark a critical juncture in the struggle to avoid climate catastrophe. At the COP26 global climate summit kicking off next week in Glasgow, Scotland, negotiators will be faced with the urgent need to get the world economy off the business-as-usual track that will take the Earth up to and beyond 3 degrees Celsius of excess heating before this century’s end, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Yet so far, the pledges of rich nations to cut greenhouse-gas emissions have been far too weak to rein in the temperature rise. Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s climate plans hang in the balance. If Congress fails to pass the reconciliation bill, the next opportunity for the United States to take effective climate action may not arise until it’s too late.

For the past several decades, Noam Chomsky has been one of the most forceful and persuasive voices confronting injustice, inequity, and the threat posed by human-caused climate chaos to civilization and the Earth. I was eager to know Professor Chomsky’s views on the roots of our current dire predicament and on humanity’s prospects for emerging from this crisis into a livable future. He very graciously agreed to speak with me by way of a video chat. The text here is an abridged version of a conversation we had on October 1, 2021.

Professor Chomsky, now 92, is the author of numerous best-selling political works, translated into scores of languages. His critiques of power and advocacy on behalf of the political agency of the common person have inspired generations of activists and organizers. He has been institute professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1976. His most recent books are Consequences of Capitalism: Manufacturing Discontent and Resistance, with Marv Waterstone, and Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet, with Robert Pollin and C.J. Polychroniou.

— Stan Cox

Stan Cox: Most of the nations that will be meeting in Glasgow for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference on October 31-November 12, 2021, have made emissions-reduction pledges. For the most part, those pledges are wholly inadequate. What principles do you think should guide the effort to prevent climate catastrophe?

Noam Chomsky: The initiators of the Paris Agreement intended to have a binding treaty, not voluntary agreements, but there was an impediment. It’s called the Republican Party. It was clear that the Republican Party would never accept any binding commitments. The Republican organization, which has lost any pretense of being a normal political party, is almost solely dedicated to the welfare of the super-rich and the corporate sector, and cares absolutely nothing about the population or the future of the world. The Republican organization would never have accepted a treaty. In response, the organizers reduced their goal to a voluntary agreement, which has all the difficulties that you mentioned.

We’ve lost six years, four under the Trump administration which was openly dedicated to maximizing the use of fossil fuels and dismantling the regulatory apparatus that, to some extent, had limited their lethal effects. To some extent, these regulations protected sectors of the population from pollution, mostly the poor and people of color. But they’re the ones who, of course, face the main burden of pollution. It’s the poor people of the world who live in what Trump called “shithole countries” that suffer the most; they have contributed the least to the disaster, and they suffer the worst.

It doesn’t have to be this way. As you write in your new book, The Path to a Liveable Future, there is indeed a path to a livable future. There are ways to have responsible, sane, and racially just policies. It’s up to all of us to demand them, something young people around the world are already doing.

Other countries have their own things to answer for, but the United States has one of the worst records in the world. The United States blocked the Paris Agreement before Trump eventually got into office. But it was under Trump’s instructions that the United States pulled out of the agreement altogether.

If you look over at the more sane Democrats, who are far from guiltless, there are people called moderates like Senator Joe Manchin (DWV), the leading recipient of fossil-fuel funding, whose position is that of the fossil-fuel companies, which is, as he put it, no elimination, just innovation. That’s Exxon Mobil’s view, too: “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you,” they say. “We’re a soulful corporation. We’re investing in some futuristic ways to remove from the atmosphere the pollution that we’re pouring into it. Everything’s fine, just trust us.” No elimination, just innovation, which may or may not come and if it does, it will probably be too late and too limited.

Take the IPCC report that just appeared. It was much more dire than previous ones and said we must eliminate fossil fuels step by step, every year, and be free of them completely within a few decades. A few days after the report was released, Joe Biden issued a plea to the OPEC oil cartel to increase production, which would lower gas prices in the United States and improve his position with the population. There was immediate euphoria in the petroleum journals. There’s lots of profit to be made, but at what expense? It was nice to have the human species for a couple of hundred thousand years, but evidently that’s long enough. After all, the average lifespan of a species on Earth is apparently around 100,000 years. So why should we break the record? Why organize for a just future for all when we can trash the planet helping rich corporations get richer?

SC: Ecological catastrophe is closing in on us largely because, as you once put it, “the entire socioeconomic system is based on production for profit and a growth imperative that cannot be sustained.” However, it seems that only state authority can implement the necessary changes in ways that are equitable, fair, and just. Given the emergency we face, do you think that the U.S. government would be able to justify imposing national-resource constraints like rules for resource allocation or fair-shares rationing, policies that would necessarily limit the freedom of local communities and individuals in their material lives?

NC: Well, we have to face some realities. I would like to see a move towards a more free and just society — production for need rather than production for profit, working people able to control their own lives instead of subordinating themselves to masters for almost their entire waking life. The time required for succeeding at such efforts is simply too great for addressing this crisis. That means we need to solve this within the framework of existing institutions, which can be ameliorated.

The economic system of the last 40 years has been particularly destructive. It’s inflicted a major assault on most of the population, resulting in a huge growth in inequality and attacks on democracy and the environment.

A livable future is possible. We don’t have to live in a system in which the tax rules have been changed so that billionaires pay lower rates than working people. We don’t have to live in a form of state capitalism in which the lower 90% of income earners have been robbed of approximately $50 trillion, for the benefit of a fraction of 1%. That’s the estimate of the RAND Corporation, a serious underestimate if we look at other devices that have been used. There are ways of reforming the existing system within basically the same framework of institutions. I think they ought to change, but it would have to be over a longer timescale.

The question is: Can we prevent climate catastrophe within the framework of less savage state capitalist institutions? I think there’s a reason to believe that we can, and there are very careful, detailed proposals as to how to do it, including ones in your new book, as well as the proposals of my friend and co-author, economist Robert Pollin, who’s worked many of these things out in great detail. Jeffrey Sachs, another fine economist, using somewhat different models, has come to pretty much the same conclusions. These are pretty much along lines of proposals of the International Energy Association, by no means a radical organization, one that grew out of the energy corporations. But they all have essentially the same picture.

There’s, in fact, even a congressional resolution by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey which outlines proposals that are pretty close to this. And I think it’s all within the range of feasibility. Their cost estimates of 2% to 3% of GDP, with feasible efforts, would not only address the crisis, but would create a more livable future, one without pollution, without traffic jams, and with more constructive, productive work, better jobs. All of this is possible.

But there are serious barriers — the fossil-fuel industries, the banks, the other major institutions, which are designed to maximize profit and not care about anything else. After all, that was the announced slogan of the neoliberal period — the economic guru Milton Friedman’s pronouncement that corporations have no responsibility to the public or to the workforce, that their total responsibility is to maximize profit for the few.

For public-relations reasons, fossil-fuel corporations like ExxonMobil often portray themselves as soulful and benevolent, working day and night for the benefit of the common good. It’s called greenwashing.

SC: Some of the most widely discussed methods for capturing and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere would consume vast quantities of biomass produced on hundreds of millions or billions of acres, thereby threatening ecosystems and food production, largely in low-income, low-emissions nations. A group of ethicists and other scholars recently wrote that a “core principle” of climate justice is that “the urgent, basic needs of poor people and poor countries ought to be secured against the effects of climate change and of measures taken to limit” climate change. That would seem to clearly rule out these “emit carbon now, capture it later” plans, and there are other examples of what we might call “climate-mitigation imperialism.” Do you think that the world may be faced with more and more of this sort of exploitation as temperatures rise? And what do you think about these proposals for bioenergy and carbon capture?

NC: It’s totally immoral, but it’s standard practice. Where does waste go? It doesn’t go in your backyard, it goes to places like Somalia that can’t protect themselves. The European Union, for example, has been dumping its atomic wastes and other pollution off the coast of Somalia, harming the fishing areas and local industries. It’s horrendous.

The latest IPCC report calls for an end to fossil fuels. The hope is that we can avert the worst and reach a sustainable economy within a couple of decades. If we don’t do that, we will reach irreversible tipping points and the people most vulnerable — those least responsible for the crisis — will suffer first and most severely from the consequences. People living in the plains of Bangladesh, for example, where powerful cyclones cause extraordinary damage. People living in India, where the temperature can go over 120 degrees Fahrenheit in summer. Many may witness parts of the world becoming unlivable.

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There were recent reports by Israeli geoscientists condemning its government for not taking account of the effect of the policies they are pursuing, including developing new gas fields in the Mediterranean. They developed an analysis that indicated that, within a couple of decades, over the summer, the Mediterranean would be reaching the heat of a Jacuzzi, and the low-lying plains would be inundated. People would still live in Jerusalem and Ramallah, but flooding would impact much of the population. Why not change course to prevent this?

SC: The neoclassical economics underlying these injustices lives on in economic climate models known as “integrated assessment models,” which come down to cost-benefit analyses based on the so-called social cost of carbon. With these projections, are economists seeking to gamble away the right of future generations to a decent life?

NC: We have no right to gamble with the lives of the people in South Asia, in Africa, or people in vulnerable communities in the United States. You want to do analyses like that in your academic seminar? OK, go ahead. But don’t dare translate it into policy. Don’t dare to do that.

There’s a striking difference between physicists and economists. Physicists don’t say, hey, let’s try an experiment that might destroy the world, because it would be interesting to see what would happen. But economists do that. On the basis of neoclassical theories, they instituted a major revolution in world affairs in the early 1980s that took off with Carter, and accelerated with Reagan and Thatcher. Given the power of the United States compared with the rest of the world, the neoliberal assault, a major experiment in economic theory, had a devastating result. It didn’t take a genius to figure it out. Their motto has been, “Government is the problem.”

That doesn’t mean you eliminate decisions; it just means you transfer them. Decisions still have to be made. If they’re not made by government, which is, in a limited way, under popular influence, they will be made by concentrations of private power, which have no accountability to the public. And following the Friedman instructions, have no responsibility to the society that gave them the gift of incorporation. They have only the imperative of self-enrichment.

Margaret Thatcher then comes along and says there is no such thing as society, just atomized individuals who are somehow managing in the market. Of course, there is a small footnote that she didn’t bother to add: for the rich and powerful, there is plenty of society. Organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, ALEC, all kinds of others. They get together, they defend themselves, and so on. There is plenty of society for them, just not for the rest of us. Most people have to face the ravages of the market. And, of course, the rich don’t. Corporations count on a powerful state to bail them out every time there’s some trouble. The rich have to have the powerful state — as well as its police powers — to be sure nobody gets in their way.

SC: Where do you see hope?

NC: Young people. In September, there was an international climate strike; hundreds of thousands of young people came out to demand an end to environmental destruction. Greta Thunberg recently stood up at the Davos meeting of the great and powerful and gave them a sober talk on what they’re doing. “How dare you,” she said, “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” You have betrayed us. Those are words that should be seared into everyone’s consciousness, particularly people of my generation who have betrayed them and continue to betray the youth of the world and the countries of the world.

We now have a struggle. It can be won, but the longer it’s delayed, the more difficult it’ll be. If we’d come to terms with this ten years ago, the cost would have been much less. If the U.S. hadn’t been the only country to refuse the Kyoto Protocol, it would have been much easier. Well, the longer we wait, the more we’ll betray our children and our grandchildren. Those are the choices. I don’t have many years; others of you do. The possibility for a just and sustainable future exists, and there’s plenty that we can do to get there before it’s too late.

Copyright 2021 Stan Cox

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his 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.

Noam Chomsky is the author of numerous best-selling political works, translated into scores of languages. He has been institute professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1976. His most recent books are Consequences of Capitalism: Manufacturing Discontent and Resistance, with Marv Waterstone, and Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet, with Robert Pollin and C.J. Polychroniou.

Stan Cox, senior scientist at The Land Institute, is the author of The Path to a Livable Future: A New Politics to Fight Climate Change, Racism, and the Next Pandemic, just published, and The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can, featuring a forward by Noam Chomsky.


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Taking the World to the Brink: The Australia-UK-US Nuclear Sub Alliance against China Fri, 22 Oct 2021 04:02:58 +0000 By David Vine | –

( – Before it’s too late, we need to ask ourselves a crucial question: Do we really — I mean truly — want a new Cold War with China?

Because that’s just where the Biden administration is clearly taking us. If you need proof, check out last month’s announcement of an “AUKUS” (Australia, United Kingdom, U.S.) military alliance in Asia. Believe me, it’s far scarier (and more racist) than the nuclear-powered submarine deal and the French diplomatic kerfuffle that dominated the media coverage of it. By focusing on the dramatically angry French reaction to losing their own agreement to sell non-nuclear subs to Australia, most of the media missed a much bigger story: that the U.S. government and its allies have all but formally declared a new Cold War by launching a coordinated military buildup in East Asia unmistakably aimed at China.

It’s still not too late to choose a more peaceful path. Unfortunately, this all-Anglo alliance comes perilously close to locking the world into just such a conflict that could all too easily become a hot, even potentially nuclear, war between the two wealthiest, most powerful countries on the planet.

If you’re too young to have lived through the original Cold War as I did, imagine going to sleep fearing that you might not wake up in the morning, thanks to a nuclear war between the world’s two superpowers (in those days, the United States and the Soviet Union). Imagine walking past nuclear fallout shelters, doing “duck and cover” drills under your school desk, and experiencing other regular reminders that, at any moment, a great-power war could end life on Earth.

Do we really want a future of fear? Do we want the United States and its supposed enemy to once again squander untold trillions of dollars on military expenditures while neglecting basic human needs, including universal health care, education, food, and housing, not to mention failing to deal adequately with that other looming existential threat, climate change?

A U.S. Military Buildup in Asia

When President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared their all-too-awkwardly named AUKUS alliance, most of the media focused on a relatively small (though hardly insignificant) part of the deal: the U.S. sale of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia and that country’s simultaneous cancellation of a 2016 contract to buy diesel-powered subs from France. Facing the loss of tens of billions of euros and being shut out of the Anglo Alliance, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the deal a “stab in the back.” For the first time in history, France briefly recalled its ambassador from Washington. French officials even cancelled a gala meant to celebrate Franco-American partnership dating back to their defeat of Great Britain in the Revolutionary War.

Caught surprisingly off guard by the uproar over the alliance (and the secret negotiations that preceded it), the Biden administration promptly took steps to repair relations, and the French ambassador soon returned to Washington. In September at the United Nations, President Biden declared declared that the last thing he wants is “a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs.” Sadly, the actions of his administration suggest otherwise.

Imagine how Biden administration officials would feel about the announcement of a “VERUCH” (VEnezuela, RUssia, and CHina) alliance. Imagine how they’d react to a buildup of Chinese military bases and thousands of Chinese troops in Venezuela. Imagine their reaction to regular deployments of all types of Chinese military aircraft, submarines, and warships in Venezuela, to increased spying, heightened cyberwarfare capabilities, and relevant space “activities,” as well as military exercises involving thousands of Chinese and Russian troops not just in Venezuela but in the waters of the Atlantic within striking distance of the United States. How would Biden’s team feel about the promised delivery of a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines to that country, involving the transfer of nuclear technology and nuclear-weapons-grade uranium?

None of this has happened, but these would be the Western Hemisphere equivalents of the “major force posture initiatives” U.S., Australian, and British officials have just announced for East Asia. AUKUS officials unsurprisingly portray their alliance as making parts of Asia “safer and more secure,” while building “a future of peace [and] opportunity for all the people of the region.” It’s unlikely U.S. leaders would view a similar Chinese military buildup in Venezuela or anywhere else in the Americas as a similar recipe for safety and peace.

In reaction to VERUCH, calls for a military response and a comparable alliance would be rapid. Shouldn’t we expect Chinese leaders to react to the AUKUS buildup with their own version of the same? For now, a Chinese government spokesperson suggested that the AUKUS allies “should shake off their Cold War mentality” and “not build exclusionary blocs targeting or harming the interests of third parties.” The Chinese military’s recent escalation of provocative exercises near Taiwan may be, in part, an additional response.

Chinese leaders have even more reason to doubt the declared peaceful intent of AUKUS given that the U.S. military already has seven military bases in Australia and nearly 300 more spread across East Asia. By contrast, China doesn’t have a single base in the Western Hemisphere or anywhere near the borders of the United States. Add in one more factor: in the last 20 years, the AUKUS allies have a track record of launching aggressive wars and participating in other conflicts from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya to Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines, among other places. China’s last war beyond its borders was with Vietnam for one month in 1979. (Brief, deadly clashes occurred with Vietnam in 1988 and India in 2020.)

War Trumps Diplomacy

By withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan, the Biden administration theoretically started moving the country away from its twenty-first-century policy of endless wars. The president, however, now appears determined to side with those in Congress, in the mainstream foreign policy “Blob,” and in the media who are dangerously inflating the Chinese military threat and calling for a military response to that country’s growing global power. The poor handling of relations with the French government is another sign that, despite prior promises, the Biden administration is paying little attention to diplomacy and reverting to a foreign policy defined by preparations for war, bloated military budgets, and macho military bluster.

Given the 20 years of disastrous warfare that followed the George W. Bush administration’s announcement of a “Global War on Terror” and its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, what business does Washington have building a new military alliance in Asia? Shouldn’t the Biden administration instead be building alliances dedicated to combating global warming, pandemics, hunger, and other urgent human needs? What business do three white leaders of three white-majority countries have attempting to dominate that region through military force?

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While the leaders of some countries there have welcomed AUKUS, the three allies signaled the racist, retrograde, downright colonial nature of their Anglo Alliance by excluding other Asian countries from their all-white club. Naming China as its obvious target and escalating Cold War-style us-vs.-them tensions risk fueling already rampant anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism in the United States and globally. Belligerent, often warlike rhetoric against China, associated with former President Donald Trump and other far-right Republicans, has increasingly been embraced by the Biden administration and some Democrats. It “has directly contributed to rising anti-Asian violence across the country,” write Asia experts Christine Ahn, Terry Park, and Kathleen Richards.

The less formalized “Quad” grouping that Washington has also organized in Asia, again including Australia as well as India and Japan, is little better and is already becoming a more militarily focused anti-Chinese alliance. Other countries in the region have indicated that they are “deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection” there, as the Indonesian government said of the nuclear-powered submarine deal. Nearly silent and so difficult to detect, such vessels are offensive weapons designed to strike another country without warning. Australia’s future acquisition of them risks escalating a regional arms race and raises troubling questions about the intentions of both Australian and U.S. leaders.

Beyond Indonesia, people worldwide should be deeply concerned about the U.S. sale of nuclear-propelled submarines. The deal undermines efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons as it encourages the proliferation of nuclear technology and weapons-grade highly enriched uranium, which the U.S. or British governments will need to provide to Australia to fuel the subs. The deal also offers a precedent allowing other non-nuclear countries like Japan to advance nuclear-weapons development under the guise of building their own nuclear-powered subs. What’s to stop China or Russia from now selling their nuclear-powered submarines and weapons-grade uranium to Iran, Venezuela, or any other country?

Who’s Militarizing Asia?

Some will claim that the United States must counter China’s growing military power, frequently trumpeted by U.S. media outlets. Increasingly, journalists, pundits, and politicians here have been irresponsibly parroting misleading depictions of Chinese military power. Such fearmongering is already ballooning military budgets in this country, while fueling arms races and increasing tensions, just as during the original Cold War. Disturbingly, according to a recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey, a majority in the U.S. now appear to believe — however incorrectly — that Chinese military power is equal to or greater than that of the United States. In fact, our military power vastly exceeds China’s, which simply doesn’t compare to the old Soviet Union.

The Chinese government has indeed strengthened its military power in recent years by increasing spending, developing advanced weapons systems, and building an estimated 15 to 27 mostly small military bases and radar stations on human-made islands in the South China Sea. Nonetheless, the U.S. military budget remains at least three times the size of its Chinese counterpart (and higher than at the height of the original Cold War). Add in the military budgets of Australia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and other NATO allies like Great Britain and the discrepancy leaps to six to one. Among the approximately 750 U.S. military bases abroad, almost 300 are scattered across East Asia and the Pacific and dozens more are in other parts of Asia. The Chinese military, on the other hand, has eight bases abroad (seven in the South China Sea’s Spratley Islands and one in Djibouti in Africa), plus bases in Tibet. The U.S. nuclear arsenal contains about 5,800 warheads compared to about 320 in the Chinese arsenal. The U.S. military has 68 nuclear-powered submarines, the Chinese military 10.

Contrary to what many have been led to believe, China is not a military challenge to the United States. There is no evidence its government has even the remotest thought of threatening, let alone attacking, the U.S. itself. Remember, China last fought a war outside its borders in 1979. “The true challenges from China are political and economic, not military,” Pentagon expert William Hartung has rightly explained.

Since President Obama’spivot to Asia,” the U.S. military has engaged in years of new base construction, aggressive military exercises, and displays of military force in the region. This has encouraged the Chinese government to build up its own military capabilities. Especially in recent months, the Chinese military has engaged in increasingly provocative exercises near Taiwan, though fearmongers again are misrepresenting and exaggerating how threatening they truly are. Given Biden’s plans to escalate his predecessors’ military buildup in Asia, no one should be surprised if Beijing announces a military response and pursues an AUKUS-like alliance of its own. If so, the world will once more be locked in a two-sided Cold-War-like struggle that could prove increasingly difficult to unwind.

Unless Washington and Beijing reduce tensions, future historians may see AUKUS as akin not just to various Cold-War-era alliances, but to the 1882 Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. That pact spurred France, Britain, and Russia to create their own Triple Entente, which, along with rising nationalism and geo-economic competition, helped lead Europe into World War I (which, in turn, begat World War II, which begat the Cold War).

Avoiding a New Cold War?

The Biden administration and the United States must do better than resuscitate the strategies of the nineteenth century and the Cold War era. Rather than further fueling a regional arms race with yet more bases and weapons development in Australia, U.S. officials could help lower tensions between Taiwan and mainland China, while working to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea. In the wake of the Afghan War, President Biden could commit the United States to a foreign policy of diplomacy, peace-building, and opposition to war rather than one of endless conflict and preparations for more of the same. AUKUS’s initial 18-month consultation period offers a chance to reverse course.

Recent polling suggests such moves would be popular. More than three times as many in the U.S. would like to see an increase, rather than a decrease, in diplomatic engagement in the world, according to the nonprofit Eurasia Group Foundation. Most surveyed would also like to see fewer troop deployments overseas. Twice as many want to decrease the military budget as want to increase it.

The world barely survived the original Cold War, which was anything but cold for the millions of people who lived through or died in the era’s proxy wars in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Can we really risk another version of the same, this time possibly with Russia as well as China? Do we want an arms race and competing military buildups that would divert trillions of dollars more from pressing human needs while filling the coffers of arms manufacturers? Do we really want to risk triggering a military clash between the United States and China, accidental or otherwise, that could easily spin out of control and become a hot, possibly nuclear, war in which the death and destruction of the last 20 years of “forever wars” would look small by comparison.

That thought alone should be chilling. That thought alone should be enough to stop another Cold War before it’s too late.

Copyright 2021 David Vine

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his 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.

David Vine, a TomDispatch regular and professor of anthropology at American University, is the author most recently of The United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State, just out in paperback. He is also the author of Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World, part of the American Empire Project.


Climate Change Viewed from the Attic of the World: A Himalayan Journey Toward Hope Wed, 20 Oct 2021 04:06:58 +0000 By William deBuys | –

( – Thirteen thousand feet high on the far side of the Himalaya mountains, we have entered the past and the future at the same time. We are a medical expedition and also a pilgrimage, consisting of doctors, nurses, Buddhist clerics, supernumeraries like me, and a large staff of guides, muleteers, and camp tenders. We are bound for the isolated villages of Upper Dolpo, a remote region of northwestern Nepal, land of the snow leopard — both the actual animal and The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen’s nonfiction classic. We are traveling the same trails Matthiessen walked in 1973.

As a medical mission, our purpose is to provide primary health care to people who rarely, if ever, see a clinician. As pilgrims, our purposes are as varied as our individual identities. Mine is to make peace with the anger and grief that have dogged me since finishing a pair of books, one on climate change, the other on extinction. They left me heartsick. My delight in the beauty of the world had been joined to sorrow at its destruction, and the two emotions were like cellmates who refused to get along. Their ceaseless argument soured the taste of life. I hoped that a long walk — about 150 miles in this case — might cure the resultant moral ache. (The story of that walk provides the backbone of my new book, The Trail to Kanjiroba: Rediscovering Earth in an Age of Loss.)

The trails we followed led us into the past in the sense that the high Himalayan world — Sanskrit’s “abode of snow” — is a relic of the Pleistocene, a land of glaciers, vast spaces, stony rubble, and frigid rivers. Its cynosure animal is less the snow leopard than the yak, a source of food, fiber, hide, bone tools, transport, and tractor power more essential to the Tibetan settlers of the region than even the bison was to America’s Cheyenne or Sioux. Yaks enabled people to inhabit the wintry attic of the world, where today an Ice Age climate still lingers, even as it begins to fade away.

As much as we were entering the past, however, we were also plunging into the future. Lands at these high elevations appear to be warming two to three times faster than those lower down. The reasons for this are only partly understood. Changes in albedo — the reflectance of the land — are part of the answer: as snow packs shrink and glacial ice retreats, the newly bared and darker earth absorbs more solar energy than the white blanket that had covered it. The absorbed energy, in turn, warms the land and accelerates the melting of yet more nearby snow and ice. Windblown soot and dust, often set loose by human activities, can also darken the white, high-altitude world, yielding a similar effect.

From 1962 to 2006 the glaciers of the Himalaya appear to have lost more than a fifth of their ice. They did not all shrink at the same rate. In fact, some glaciers haven’t shrunk at all, but measurements of the overall trend in the Sikkim-Nepal region put the average loss at seven inches of depth every year across the whole extent of ice. And, of course, the melting continues.

We used to say that climate disruption at high altitude presaged the changes that were soon to arrive in the rest of the world, that the cascade of broken balances exhibited by melting glaciers, erratic seasons, and unpredictable rivers was a harbinger of woes bound for environments closer to home. Sadly, such changes are harbingers no longer, for the woes have arrived.

Last summer saw nearly an entire Greek island combusted, significant swaths of Italy and Turkey turned to ash, giant expanses of the American Pacific Northwest set ablaze, and another full season of California flambé. Meanwhile, wildfires in Siberia consumed forested areas greater than all the rest combined, while floods in Belgium and western Germany drowned towns and villages that had never seen the like before. Then came an Atlantic hurricane season that has rivaled or surpassed the previous record-setting year in multiple categories. The future about which scientists and activists have warned us for more than 30 years is no longer on our doorstep. It’s in the house.

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Nowadays, the far Himalaya is less a model for the future than a mirror for the present. You see the same controversies over grazing and the same mistrust of land “managers” that preoccupy the American West. You see patterns of rural-to-urban migration that are common throughout the world, with young people leaving the family farmstead to seek their fortunes in the city. You also see the increased mobility of humanity expressed in legions of outsiders flooding into formerly isolated districts, much to the consternation of longtime residents.

In the case of Dolpo, the vast majority of outsiders invading the region are hunters of a weird fungus, yarza gunbu, that invades the head of a particular caterpillar soon after it hatches in the tundra grasslands. The fungus then consumes the unlucky caterpillar and erupts through the thin soil to produce a miniature tower, only a centimeter or two high, that (with a certain amount of imagination) can be seen to resemble an erect penis. As the snow recedes in the spring, yarza hunters pour by the thousands into the high country. Crawling on their hands and knees or shuffling stooped across the damp heights, they stare intently at the ground, straining to spot the phallic structure of their quarry. Gathered and dried, these rather unappetizing avatars of the male principle sell at cocaine prices as a remedy for impotence and a general tonic for health. Their market includes a large swath of Asia, especially China. Some call it “Himalayan Viagra.”

Many Nepalis, especially urban youth, look to science to explain the perplexities of climate change, but in Dolpo and similar regions, yarza gunbu hunters often get blamed for the disturbed weather and chaotic hydrology afflicting the region. The newcomers, so the thinking goes, break unwritten laws, abuse pastureland, pollute streams, and cut shrubs and trees where none should be cut. Such behavior is said to upset the spirits of place. As a result, brutal winters now alternate with ones that are too warm, while avalanches fall where avalanches never fell before. The rains also seem to be affected. They start too early or end too late. Or they don’t come at all. And the traditional rituals that people counted on to restore order when things slipped out of balance are proving inadequate to overcome such a high level of disturbance.

The Third Force: Stupidity

If opinion as to the cause of climate change is divided in Nepal, the division is generally benign. Not so in the United States, where it used to be said that, when things got bad enough, the nation’s doubters and deniers would come around. Well, things have been bad enough for quite a while, as attested by the incineration of Paradise, California, in 2018, and Greenville, California this summer, the steady diminishment of the Colorado River, and so many other grim indicators. Rather than allow the light of realism to penetrate their thinking, the rightwing cheerleaders of America’s culture wars, many of whom serve in Congress, persist in denying, dodging, or twisting the facts of global warming in ways that please their base and their corporate sponsors. Garret Keizer, writing in Harper’s Magazine, theorizes that the problem goes deeper than the inevitable tension between liberals and conservatives. He argues that there is “a third force seeking hegemony over this world: stupidity.”

Powered by social media, bullshit now travels at the speed of light. A Facebook algorithm is always available to help you segue from funny cat videos to anxiety-inducing clips about QAnon and chem trails. The main objective for Facebook and its advertisers is to keep viewers amused and aroused, to keep them plugged in. For many Internet users, real threats like global warming just can’t compete with the loony ones.

The immoral and potentially fatal inability of the United States to take meaningful action on global warming means that Americans share more in common with rural Nepalis than they might imagine. Even through the pall of pollution that hangs over that country’s capital, Kathmandu, people there can see that their climatic future will be determined by the billowing smokestacks of the United States, China, India, and Europe. They know that they have little agency on the world stage, little ability to influence events. This is not something new. Nepal is squeezed between the jealous powers of India and China. Each plays a different tune; Nepal dances, but it cannot dance to both at once. With two quarreling neighbors to appease, Nepal is far from being the master of its fate.

We Americans don’t see ourselves as subject to the will of others. Since the early days of the republic, our autonomy has been a point of national pride. We chart our own path and we’ve long believed that, if something isn’t right, we can fix it. If something needs doing, we will do it. We fought a world war in two hemispheres and came out victors. We rebuilt Europe. We walked on the moon. We won the Cold War and extended our economic reach around the world, exporting not just manufactured goods but our taste in music, film, fast food, and clothes. We spurred a Green Revolution in agriculture that vastly expanded the human carrying capacity of the globe, and we vanquished smallpox and polio. We were the good guys.

Today those attitudes and that pride seem so… well, twentieth century. Our scientists still develop vaccines, but the rest of us can’t agree on using them. Our research institutions still pioneer the science of epidemics and climate change, but the general population can’t agree on their underlying reality.

Implementing policies to control a public health crisis that has killed more than 700,000 fellow citizens or mitigating a shift in the global environmental equilibrium that threatens the future of civilization — these “big lifts” now exceed our strength. We can’t even agree on a measure as simple as mask-wearing. More concerning yet, fidelity to the basic tenets of our electoral system, once the backbone of our democracy, now seems a relic of the past. Tens of millions of voters reject the clearly documented outcome of our last presidential election, and so do hundreds, maybe thousands, of public officials elected by that very system.

In times of stress, America has sought reassurance in the exploits of its vaunted military, but lately that hasn’t worked out too well. Washington’s 20-year war in Afghanistan bore a gloomy resemblance to its catastrophic effort to “save” Vietnam from communism, and not just in the way it ended. Imperial hubris, ignorance of local realities, and soaring civilian casualties are just a few of the dismal parallels to the earlier war. And we need hardly speak of Iraq: our invasion there produced an out-and-out disaster premised on out-and-out lies.

Which brings us back to agency. As Americans, we now confront a striking new reality: we don’t have the clout we once thought we did. White America now shares its humbled condition with people who live on the farther side of the Himalaya, as well as with Native Americans, Blacks, and many other fellow citizens. America’s minorities have long understood the loneliness and vulnerability of not being in command, of having to struggle against a hostile and disordered world. Now, the fractured American majority is getting a taste of how that feels. For want of cohesion and agreement, the United States is failing to address the biggest and most complex problems that confront it. Given how we’ve used our military since World War II, that reduced capability may not be an entirely bad thing. But where climate change is concerned, it’s tragic.

Climate change requires comprehensive, systematic, and immediate action. Again and again at the national level, we’ve shown that we don’t have what it takes. Diagnosis: inadequate agency. Responding to the climate crisis has become a race against time and our government still dawdles at the starting line.

Gratitude, Resilience, and Hope

At 13,000 feet on the farther side of the Himalaya, the world becomes lunar. The tallest vegetation can’t hide a golf ball. Nothing is screened from view. What’s there is there, as naked as sunlit boulders, as clear as mountain streams. As our expedition meandered from village to village, traversing passes higher than 17,000 feet, we wondered how so stark and spartan an environment might shape the people dwelling in it. In our clinics, we got a partial answer.

The gratitude and resilience of our Dolpo patients impressed us all deeply. One doctor spoke for many of us when he said,

“They come in with joint pain, a blown-out knee, GI distress, a horrible rash, whatever, and maybe we can’t help them. ‘Sorry,’ we say. ‘Wish we could do something for you.’ And they get up and smile. They say, ‘That’s fine. Thanks anyway.’ And off they go, as cheerfully as they came in. Patients back in my clinic [in the U.S.] are so different. Whatever hurts them becomes so much bigger a thing. And we give them meds for blood pressure or pain, but they really seem to want us to fix something bigger than that, something we don’t have meds for. They want us to fix the pain that is in their minds or in their souls. My Nepali patients have lots of problems, but not that one.”

The cheerful stoicism of our hosts inspired us. I had joined the expedition carrying much anger at my country’s refusal to face its environmental responsibilities and frustration at witnessing the worsening results of its fecklessness. The long walk helped quite a bit. My fellow travelers, the patients we treated, and the spectacular land through which we traveled imparted many lessons. Perhaps the most important involved a rekindling of hope.

Hope is different from optimism and also different from the simple desire for things to turn out well. True hope demands faith in “not-knowing,” in trusting the uncertainty of the future. The people of Dolpo seemed to possess that faith. In realms more familiar to westerners, such culture heroes as Czech dissident and later president Vaclav Havel and South African liberator Nelson Mandela also possessed it. Neither Havel nor Mandela knew if the Soviet Union or apartheid would be dismantled in their lifetime.

Nevertheless, through long periods of darkness, each of them cultivated a resilient hope that had two vital components. The first was a commitment to the intrinsic value of right action, irrespective of whether it resulted in the desired outcome. In Havel’s words, they did what “makes sense,” no matter whether their efforts might ultimately fail. Many philosophies distinguish between “instrumental good,” which is realized when an action achieves its goal, and “intrinsic good,” which is realized irrespective of result. Havel and Mandela pursued intrinsic good.

Second, they believed in surprise — that sometimes big, consequential things happen with virtually no warning. An earthquake, the fall of the Soviet Union, or a coronavirus epidemic are all good examples. There is no guarantee that the consequences of surprise will be beneficial. That’s where true hopefulness and doing what “makes sense” come in — they sustain you through the long wait for surprise. In Czechoslovakia and South Africa when the long-desired surprises arrived, both Havel and Mandela seized their moment and made them as beneficial as possible. The essence of their preparation was that they never lost hope. Neither should we.

Copyright 2021 William deBuys


I’ll be Watching You: Military Dependents under Surveillance Wed, 13 Oct 2021 04:04:49 +0000 By Andrea Mazzarino | –

( ) – I know what it means to be watched all too carefully, a phenomenon that’s only grown worse in the war-on-terror years. I’m a strange combination, I suspect, being both a military spouse and an anti-war-on-terror activist. As I’ve discovered, the two sit uncomfortably in what still passes for one life. In this country in these years, having eyes on you has, sadly enough, become a common and widespread phenomenon. When it’s the government doing it, it’s called “surveillance.” When it’s your peers or those above you in the world of the military spouse, there’s no word for it at all.

Now, be patient with me while I start my little exploration of such an American state at the most personal level before moving on to the way in which we now live in ever more of a — yes — surveillance state.

A Navy Wife’s Perspective on Military Life, Post-9/11

“The military sounds like the mafia. Your husband’s rank determines how powerful you are.” That was a good friend’s response, a decade or so ago, when a more experienced Navy wife shamed me for revealing via text message that my husband’s nuclear submarine would soon return to port. Her spouse had been assigned to the same boat for a year longer than mine and she headed up the associated Family Readiness Group, or FRG.

Such FRGs, led by officers’ wives, are all-volunteer outfits that are supposed to support the families of the troops assigned to any boat. In a moment of thoughtless excitement, I had indeed texted another spouse, offering a hand in celebrating our husbands’ imminent return, the sort of party that, as the same woman had told me, “All wives help with to thank our guys for what they do for us. It’s key to command morale.”

She had described the signs other wives had been making under the direction of both the captain’s wife’s and hers, as well as the phone chain they had set up to let us know the moment the boat would arrive so that we could rush to the base to greet it. In response to my message, she’d replied in visibly angry form (that is, in all capital letters), “NEVER, EVER INDICATE IN ANY WAY OVER TEXT THAT THE BOAT WILL BE RETURNING SOON. YOU ARE ENDANGERING THEIR LIVES.” She added that I would be excluded from all boat activities if I ever again so much as hinted that such a return was imminent.

Alone in my apartment in a sparsely populated town near the local military base, my heart raced with the threat of further isolation. What would happen because of what I’d done?

And yes, I’d blundered, but not, as became apparent to me, in any way that truly mattered or actually endangered anything or anyone at all — nothing, in other words, that couldn’t have been dealt with in a kinder, less Orwellian fashion, given that this was a supposedly volunteer group.

It was my first little introduction to being watched and the pressure that goes with such surveillance in the world of the military spouse. Years later, when my husband was assigned to another submarine, an officer’s wife at the same naval base had burst into tears telling me about the surprise visit she’d just been paid by three women married to officers of higher rank on other boats stationed at that base.

Sitting across from her in their designer dresses, they insisted she wasn’t doing enough to raise raffle money to pay for a military child’s future education. Am I really responsible for sending another kid to college? That was her desperate question to me. Unable to keep a job, given her husband’s multiple reassignments, she had struggled simply to save enough for the education of her own children. And mind you, she was already providing weekly free childcare to fellow spouses unable to locate affordable services in that town, while counseling some wives who had become suicidal during their husbands’ long deployments.

I could, of course, multiply such examples, but you get the idea. In the war-on-terror-era military, eyes are always on you.

Married to the Military (or the Terror Within)

On paper, the American military strives to “recognize the support and sacrifice” of the 2.6 million spouses and children of active-duty troops. And there are indeed gestures in the right direction — from partnerships with employers who have committed to hiring military spouses to short-term-crisis mental-health support.

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Talk to just about any spouse and she’ll — and yes, we are talking about women here — tell you that the most effective and reliable support comes from other wives who volunteer their unpaid time to run FRGs and similar activities. Unfortunately, in the post-9/11 era, as anthropologists Jean Scandlyn and Sarah Hautzinger have pointed out, ever more aspects of military family life, once thought of as “volunteer,” have become “voluntold” — as in, we’re watching you and you’re expected to do it. Otherwise, your husband’s career won’t advance.

Worse yet, all such voluntold activities tend to sweep you into a world of informal surveillance geared not just toward making sure you don’t spill the beans on classified troop movements, but averting possible PR crises over looming military realities like family violence and the rising suicide rates among the troops. After the birth of our second child, a woman with zero mental-health training typically called me weekly to “check in.” She wanted to make sure, she insisted, that I was caring properly for our baby. If I refused to talk with her — and I found her oppressive indeed — she threatened to call in child protective services. I was in graduate school studying to become a clinical social worker, I told her, and knew perfectly well that she had no basis to report me. I wondered, though, what spouses with fewer resources went through when they received such “surveillance” calls.

Believe me, national security has gained a new meaning in such an atmosphere. Once, for instance, my husband was confronted by another officer because I’d written a post on an anonymous blog about military life I was then authoring — my identity had just been discovered — describing the unhealthy diet that officers were forced to eat on his submarine. Even this was considered a threat to national security, because I was “undermining morale.”

Sometimes, it seemed as if those tasked with waging this country’s never-ending war on terror had a deep urge to create yet more problems of every sort, while validating the assumption that we all lived in a world of ever-present danger. Just a week after my husband and I moved to a new duty station with our toddler, for instance, he approached me one evening in our still empty house after a 16-hour shift on base. His face was pale when, with fists clenched, he said, “I have a favor I need to ask of you.” His new commanding officer wanted me to come by one night so that he and a group of senior officers and their wives could discuss what was “appropriate behavior” in spouses’ groups. Apparently, the spouse of an officer leaving the command had not gotten along with the other officers’ wives. Because my husband’s rank was the same as the departing officer’s, I was to be preemptively warned based on nothing more than the rank of the man I’d chosen to marry.

“Yeah, I’ll talk to him,” I said. “But I have some things I’d like him to consider, too.” If I was going to attend such a meeting, I had my own set of topics to discuss — among them, that families shouldn’t be expected to pay $50 a ticket to attend the annual ball and that new mothers shouldn’t be called weekly by the command ombudsman and asked about their parenting skills.

The next day, my husband told me his commanding officer felt “like you’re forcing his hand.” His nerves frayed, he took a breath and then whispered (so our toddler couldn’t hear him), “Look, he said if you don’t just come to his house, anything could happen to our family. Anything.”

I never did visit that captain’s house, nor participate much during the two years we were at that base. And yet the captain’s ambiguous threat to our family hung over our home the whole time. There were moments at night when I jumped at every noise outside our windows. At a moment when I was alone with our toddler and once again very pregnant, our house was indeed broken into and I even briefly wondered whether the captain was to blame (before quickly dismissing the thought). I started to feel as though the terror of that period was coming from within the military itself.

No one attacked my family, but it would prove to be a difficult two years. For example, one evening shortly after my husband returned from a grueling deployment in which his sub had collided with a civilian ship, he shared a text from the captain voicing disappointment that spouses like me had not chosen to go to more events, including the Navy ball. Thanks to families like ours, the captain insisted, command morale was paying a price. We were, he implied, being watched and not only was my husband’s career at risk, but the recent life-threatening crash at sea from which we were all reeling had somehow been caused, at least in part, by lack of spousal participation back here at home. Despite my best feminist efforts to dismiss such a ludicrous suggestion, I felt watched, crushed by guilt, powerless to reverse what seemed like an endless string of negative events affecting our family. Most of all, I felt increasingly lonely.

And as it turns out, I was anything but alone in that sense of constant surveillance and my reaction to it. According to a 2021 independent survey conducted by fellow military spouse Jennifer Barnhill, more than a third of spouses felt direct pressure from commanders or indirect pressure of other sorts to participate in spousal group activities. And yet, a majority of spouses surveyed sensed that they had little influence over the way the military actually ran. In other words, spousal groups often provided not much more than a veneer of legitimacy for the claims of military leaders that they cared about families.

My Personal War on Terror

Terrorism can be anywhere. That’s the message repeatedly conveyed to me by my military community since the war on terror began. In these years, a chilling, if unspoken, corollary to that thought developed: anyone whose lifestyle and viewpoint the military did not agree with or approve of was a danger.

Over the last decade, I’ve felt as if the tiny community of discontented, activist-minded spouses I’ve associated with and the mob-like structures of the military conformists who eternally try to rope us in or dismiss us seemed to recreate post-9/11 America in a microcosm. A deep and ever-present fear of whistleblowers and dissent was increasingly pervasive in our world. It was typical of those years that, in 2010, Army Private Chelsea Manning was convicted — by a military judge — of 17 charges, including violations of the Espionage Act, and sent to jail after she provided more than 700,000 classified military documents to Wikileaks. Among other things, they detailed evidence of American military leaders failing to investigate hundreds of cases of rape, torture, and abuse by the Iraqi police; a 2007 U.S. Army helicopter attack in Baghdad that killed two Reuters journalists; and secret counterterrorism operations in Yemen that, in my opinion, Americans should have been informed about.

In 2013, I watched in similar horror the attack on whistleblower Edward Snowden for leaking classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA) on its staggering global and national surveillance activities. He also revealed a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court’s order for Verizon and other major telephone companies to provide the NSA with the phone records of ordinary Americans on a daily basis.

This was not the country I had ever imagined myself living in or my husband defending. Snowden found himself stranded in Russia in the face of a possible lifetime behind bars here for revealing the true nature of the national security state’s version of post-9/11 America.

I had, by then, helped co-found Brown University’s Costs of War Project to offer a more accurate picture than most Americans then had of the nature and price (financial and human) of this country’s never-ending war on terror. My colleagues and I were working, among other things, to raise awareness here that we were increasingly subject to an all-encompassing kind of surveillance that would undoubtedly have impressed some of our favorite foreign authoritarian leaders — maybe even Vladimir Putin himself.

After all, the dust had barely settled around the collapsed Twin Towers in New York City when the administration of President George W. Bush began conducting electronic surveillance of a growing range of Americans without a warrant in sight. In 2008, Congress would allow that Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to approve such programs without any prior indication of individual wrongdoing. As of this year, according to the Costs of War Project, the U.S. government has more Americans under electronic surveillance through wiretapping and the bulk collection of communications without probable cause than it does through wiretaps based on likely involvement in criminal activity (the standard for such surveillance prior to 9/11).

In the war-on-terror years, the FBI’s powers to secretly compel the release of information on individual bank and Internet use have dramatically expanded (no individualized suspicion necessary). The FBI also sweeps information from tens of thousands of people — citizens and non-citizens alike — into its databases, which then becomes available to tens of thousands of government employees, potentially marking a person for life as a suspected terrorist.

Similar developments are taking place at the state and local levels. Some police departments, for instance, have adopted tactics resembling those of a police state. Since 9/11, the New York City Police Department, the largest in the country, has typically used facial-recognition and license-plate-reader cameras to monitor heavily trafficked areas on a constant basis, in the process effectively gaining information on Americans protesting in public.

For instance, the New York Times reports that, based on a recent Amnesty International analysis, a person participating in a protest in part of downtown Manhattan “would be captured on the Police Department’s array of Argus video cameras for about 80% of that march.” The Department also uses software to sweep social media sites and store information on individuals without a warrant. In Minneapolis, according to former FBI agent Terry Albury, now serving prison time for leaking classified information, FBI agents mobilized local citizens of Somali background, along with local law enforcement, into “Shared Responsibility Committees.” These were ostensibly to help ensure neighborhood security by identifying young people at risk of radicalizing, while actually encouraging committee members to report on one another.

Of course, American Muslims have been disproportionately affected by the government’s dramatic increase in surveillance. According to the New York Times, U.S. intelligence officials estimated that “anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 Al-Qaeda terrorists” in the United States had come under FBI surveillance in the year after the September 11th attacks, based overwhelmingly on their ethnic and religious identities. Such individual investigations almost invariably led nowhere.

The unease I felt that first time I got a critical text from a higher-ranking military wife wasn’t faintly comparable to what a Muslim-American husband might have felt when the FBI knocked on his door and took him away for interrogation. Still, believe me, it does feel awful to be alienated from the community you’ve spent much of your life trying to contribute to — both as a wife, a human-rights activist, and a therapist.

At one of the first “homecomings” for a boat on which my husband was stationed, a young military spouse approached me. She’d been placed on suicide watch by an officer’s wife as that sub’s deployment began. By then, word had gotten out that I was the author of an anonymous blog on military life. (Not long after, under enormous social pressure, I shut it down.) Staring at the approaching boat, she said in a hushed voice, “My dad sent me your blog. He thought I’d feel less alone. Someone told me the writer was you.” Then she promptly moved away from me.

While tears came to my eyes, I also felt less alone, thanks to her small revelation. If people like us can manage, however modestly, to express our solidarity in a place where this has become so much more difficult and dangerous over these years of never-ending war, then others can perhaps begin to think about calling out leaders of all sorts who abuse their power in the name of fighting terror.

Given that being marked as dangerous can forever alter your life in a world in which surveillance is the order of the day, shouldn’t we all be holding to task leaders who abuse their power, including the leaders of the U.S. military?

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, Songlands (the final one in his 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.

A Parable of (All-American) Violence: Accountability and the War of Terror Fri, 24 Sep 2021 04:02:23 +0000 By Kelly Denton-Borhaug |

( ) – As a religious studies professor, I know a parable when I see one. Consider the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the final events in this country’s war in Afghanistan as just such a parable taken directly from the history of our moment.

The heart-wrenching last days of that war amounted to a cautionary tale about the nature of violence and the difficulty Americans have honestly facing their own version of it. As chaos descended on Kabul, and as the Biden administration’s efforts to evacuate as many Afghans and Americans as possible were stretched to the limit, one more paroxysm of senseless violence took center stage.

A suicide bomber sent by the Islamic State group ISIS-K struck Kabul’s airport, killing and maiming Afghans as well as American troops. The response? More violence as a Hellfire missile from an American drone supposedly took aim at a member of the terror group responsible. The U.S. military announced that its drone assassination had “prevented another suicide attack,” but the missile actually killed 10 members of one family, seven of them children, and no terrorists at all. Later, the Pentagon admitted its “mistaken judgment” and called the killings “a horrible tragedy of war.”

How to react? Most Americans seemed oblivious to what had happened. Such was the pattern of the last decades, as most of us ignored the staggering number of civilian casualties from our country’s bombing and droning of Afghanistan. As for the rest of us, well, what else could you do but hold your head and cry?

In fact, those final events in Afghanistan crystallized an important truth about our post-9/11 history: the madness of making war the primary method for dealing with potential global conflict and what’s still called “national security.” Throughout these years, our leaders and citizens alike promoted delusional dreams of violence (and glory), while minimizing or denying the nature of that violence and its grim impact on everyone touched by it.

With respect to the parables of the New Testament gospels, Jesus of Nazareth is reported to have said, “Those who have ears, let them hear.” In this case, however, Americans seem unable to listen.

Parables are compact, supposedly simple stories that, upon closer examination, illustrate profound spiritual and moral truths. But too few in this country have absorbed the truth about the misplaced violence that characterized our occupation of Afghanistan. Our culture remained both remarkably naïve and blindly arrogant when it came to widespread assumptions about our violent acts in the world that only surged thanks to the further militarization of this society and the wars we never stopped fighting.

The Costs of War in Well-Being, Money, and Morality

Over the last 20 years, according to a report from the National Priorities Project, the U.S. dedicated $21 trillion to an obsessive militarization of this country and to the post-9/11 wars that went with it. Nearly one million people died in the violence, while at least 38 million were displaced. Meanwhile, more than a million American veterans of those conflicts came home with “significant disabilities.” Deployment abroad brought not just death but devastation to all-too-many military families. Female spouses too often bore the brunt of care for returning service members whose needs were unfathomably wrenching. The maltreatment of children in military families “far outpaced the rates among non-military families” after increasing deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq and children of deployed parents showed “high levels of sadness.”

Many analysts have pointed to the culture of lies and self-deceit that characterized these years. American leaders, political and military, lost their own moral grounding and were dishonest with the citizenry they theoretically represented. But we citizens also share in that culpability. Andrew Bacevich recently asked why the American people didn’t hold their leaders to a more stringent accounting of the wars of the last 20 years. Why were Americans so willing to go along with the unremitting violence of those conflicts year after year, despite failure after failure? What he called the “Indispensable Nation Syndrome” was, he suggested, at least partially to blame — a belief in American exceptionalism, in our unique power to know what’s best for the world and grasp what the future holds in ways other nations and people couldn’t.

In the post-9/11 period, such a conviction mixed lethally with a deepening commitment to violence as the indispensable way to preserve what was best about this country, while fending off imagined threats of every sort. Americans came to believe ever more deeply, ever more thoughtlessly, in violence as a tool that could be successfully used however this country’s leaders saw fit.

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The unending violence of our war culture became a kind of security blanket, money in the bank. Few protested the outlandish Pentagon budgets overwhelmingly approved by Congress each year, even as defeats in distant lands multiplied. Violence would protect us; it would save us. We couldn’t stockpile enough of it, or the weapons that made it possible, or use it more liberally around the globe — and increasingly at home as well. Such a deep, if remarkably unexamined, belief in the efficacy of violence also served to legitimate our wars, even as it helped conceal their true beneficiaries, the corporate weapons producers, those titans of the military-congressional-industrial complex.

As it happens, however, violence isn’t a simple tool or clothing you can simply take off and set aside once you’ve finished the job. Just listen to morally injured military service members to understand how deep and lasting violence turns out to be — and how much harder it is to control than people imagine. Once you’ve wrapped your country in its banner, there’s no way to keep its barbs from piercing your own skin, its poison from dripping into your soul.

Canaries in the Coal Mine of War, American-Style

Listening intently to the voices of active-duty service members and veterans can cut through the American attachment to violence in these years, for they’ve experienced its costs and carried its burden in deeply personal ways. Think of them as the all-too-well-armed canaries in the coal mine of our post-9/11 wars, taking in and choking on the toxicity of the violence they were ordered to mete out in distant lands. Their moral injuries expose the fantasy of “using violence cleanly” as wishful thinking, a chimera.

Take Daniel Hale who, while serving in the Air Force, participated in America’s drone-assassination program. Once out of the service, his moral compass eventually compelled him to leak classified information about drone warfare to a reporter and speak out against the drone brutality and inhumanity he had witnessed and helped perpetrate. (As the Intercept reported, during five months of one operation in Afghanistan, “nearly 90% of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets.”)

Convicted of violating the Espionage Act and given 45 months in prison, he wrote, in a letter to the judge who sentenced him, “Your Honor, the truest truism that I’ve come to understand about the nature of war is that war is trauma. I believe that any person either called upon or coerced to participate in war against their fellow man is promised to be exposed to some form of trauma. In that way, no soldier blessed to have returned home from war does so uninjured.” Having agonized about “the undeniable cruelties” he perpetrated, though he attempted to “hold his conscience at bay,” he eventually found that it all came “roaring back to life.”

Or listen to the voice of former Army reservist and CIA analyst Matt Zeller. Having grown up in a family steeped in the American military tradition and only 19 years old on September 11, 2001, he felt “obligated” to do something for his country and signed up. “I bought into it,” he would later say. “I really believed we could make a difference. And it turns out… you don’t come back the same person. I wasn’t prepared for any of that. And I don’t think you really can be.” Describing his post-service efforts to assist Afghans “endangered by their work with the United States” who were fleeing the country, he said, “I feel like this is atoning for all the shit that I did previously.”

Such voices disrupt the dominant narrative of the post-9/11 era, the unshakeable belief of our military and political leaders (and perhaps even of most Americans) that committing violence globally for two decades in response to that one day of bloody attacks on this country would somehow pay off and, while underway, could be successfully contained, distanced, and controlled. There was a deep conviction that, through such violence, we could purchase the world we wanted (and not just the weapons the military-industrial complex wanted us to pay for). Such was the height of American naïveté.

The Inequality and Inhumanity of Violence

Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung has defined violence as an “avoidable assault [on] basic human needs and more generally [on] life.” But how many Americans in these years ever seriously considered the possibility that the violence of war could be avoided? Instead, in response to that one day of terrible violence in our own land, perpetual conflict and perpetual violence became the American way of life in the world, and the consequences at home and abroad couldn’t have been uglier.

Who bothered to consider other avenues of response in the wake of 9/11? The U.S. invaded Afghanistan five weeks after that day, while the Bush administration was already preparing the way for a future invasion of Iraq (a country which had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11). I’ll never forget the confusion, shock, and fear in the early weeks after those attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The world was grieving with us, but the dominant urge for violent revenge took shape with breathtaking speed, so quickly that it all seemed the natural course of events. Such is the nature of violence. Once it’s built into the structures of human society and government planning, it all too often takes precedence over any other possible course of action whenever conflict or danger arises. “There’s no other choice,” people say and critical thinking shuts down.

We in the United States have yet to truly face the personal as well as national costs of the violence that was so instantly woven into the fabric of our response to 9/11. Within a few days, for instance, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was already talking about a global war on terror targeting 60 countries! Most Americans blithely believed that we could strike in such a fashion without being truly affected ourselves. People generally failed to consider how such a recourse to endless violence would conflict, morally speaking, with the nation’s own deepest values.

But philosophers know that such violence almost invariably turns out to be grounded in inequality and so sharply conflicts with this country’s most basic values, especially the idea that human beings are equal. To act violently against the other, people must believe that the object of violence is somehow less worthy, of less value than themselves. In these years, they had to believe that the endless targets of American violence, like those seven dead children in Kabul, not to speak of the future lives and psychic well-being of the soldiers who were sent to deliver it, didn’t truly matter. They were all “expendable.”

No wonder military training always includes a process of being schooled in dehumanizing others. Otherwise, most people just won’t commit violence in that fashion. The sharp assault on their own values, their own humanity, is too great.

The commemorations of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 spotlighted the limits of the world that two decades of such wars have embedded in our national soul. With rare exceptions, there was a disparity when it came to grief. Countless reports mourned the victims and first responders who died here that day, but few were the ones who extended remembrance and grief to the hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions who have died in our wars in distant lands ever since. Where was the grief for them? Where was the sense of regret or introspection about what 20 years of unmitigated violence has wrought around the world and what it has undoubtedly changed in the moral character of this country itself?

For, believe me, all of us have been impacted morally by our government’s insistent attachment to violence. It’s helped destabilize our own core humanity, its toxicity penetrating all too deeply into the soul of the nation.

Recently, I was asked whether I agreed or disagreed with the statement, “I can be trained to kill and participate in killing and still be a good person.”

As a theologian, an American, and a human being, I find myself filled with dread when I attempt to sort this out. One thing I do know, though. I may be a civilian, but along with the members of the U.S. military, I can’t escape sharing complicity in the killing that’s gone on in my nation’s name, in that war on terror that became a war of terror. I remain part of the group that committed those crimes over so many seemingly endless years and that truth weighs ever more heavily on my conscience.

Copyright 2021 Kelly Denton-Borhaug

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his 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.

Kelly Denton-Borhaug, a TomDispatch regular, has long been investigating how religion and violence collide in American war-culture. She teaches in the global religions department at Moravian University. She is the author of two books, U.S. War-Culture, Sacrifice and Salvation and, more recently, And Then Your Soul is Gone: Moral Injury and U.S. War-Culture.


“That night, I became a climate Refugee:” The Dixie Fire and our Hot Future Fri, 10 Sep 2021 04:04:00 +0000 ByJane Braxton Little | –

( – GREENVILLE, CA — At 10 a.m. on July 22nd, I interviewed a New York University professor about using autonomous robots, drones, and other unmanned devices to suppress structural and wildland fires. I sent the interview to an online transcription service, walked down the steps of my second-floor office and a block to the Greenville post office, where I mailed a check to California Fair Plan for homeowners’ fire insurance. I then drove 25 miles to a dental appointment. I was lucky to make it home before burning debris closed the roads.

That night I became a climate refugee, evacuated from my house thanks to the Dixie Fire. Since then, it’s scorched a landscape nearly the size of Delaware, destroyed 678 houses and decimated several communities in Indian Valley, where I’ve been for 46 years. One of them was Greenville, California, a town founded in the Gold Rush era of the nineteenth century, where I happen to live. I never imagined myself among the 55 million people worldwide whose lives have already been upended by climate change. Maybe no one does until it happens, even though we’re obviously the future for significant parts of humanity. Those of us who acknowledge the climate disaster — especially those who write about it — may be the last to picture ourselves fleeing the catastrophes scientists have been predicting.

Climate change should come as no surprise to any of us, even in Greenville, one of four communities in rural Plumas County tucked into the mountains of the northern Sierra Nevada range, 230 miles northeast of San Francisco. No one would call most of us progressive. We’re a social mishmash of loggers, miners, and ranchers, many of whom strongly supported Donald Trump (despite a disparate population of aging hippies living among us). We squabble over water ditches and whose insurance should cover which parade. We picked to death a solar-power project and took five years to decide on a design for a community building. The town has been in decline since I moved there nearly half a century ago, slowly sinking into its dirt foundations.

Despite Greenville’s insularity, we’ve had some inkling that the world is changing around us. Old-timers talk about the winters when so much snow fell that they had to shovel from second-story windows to get out of their houses. Last winter, we got less than three feet of snow. In the 1980s, a warm March storm flooded Indian Valley with melted snow that floated stacks of newly sawn lumber away from a local sawmill into a just-created lake. We all cheered as brazen cowboys lassoed bundles of two-by-fours and hauled them off in their pickup trucks.

In a megadrought-ridden West, precipitation currently is half the normal amount, making it prospectively the driest year since 1894. Today, such modest clues to a changing climate seem quaint indeed in the face of the evidence now bombarding California and the rest of the West. As in recent years, this summer’s fires began breaking out here far earlier than the norm. Already 647 wildfires have burned 4.9 million acres of the West, an area three times the size of Rhode Island. In California, 31 new fires started on August 30th alone — and any significant rain or snow is undoubtedly still months away.

For me, as for the rest of us in Plumas County, the Dixie Fire delivered the reality of climate change in a raging fury that has forever changed our lives. It started July 13th in the Feather River Canyon, a 5,000-foot gorge that carries water to more than 25 million Californians through the State Water Project. Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) has built a series of power stations here that dammed the former trophy-trout stream and converted its cascading energy into electricity, generating around 15% of California’s hydropower. At approximately seven o’clock that Tuesday morning, a hydroelectric facility lost power at Cresta in the lower Feather River Canyon. Officials later reported a “healthy green tree” leaning perilously against a conductor on a pole with a fire burning on the ground near the base of that tree. By evening, that micro-blaze had exploded to 1,000 acres.

Over the next 14 days what came to be known as the Dixie Fire whipped up one side canyon and down another, driving residents out of the town of Indian Falls and incinerating their homes. It demolished Canyon Dam at the southern end of Lake Almanor. The inhabitants of the towns of Crescent Mills, then Greenville, and soon after Taylorsville fled. Some of us returned for a night or two, only to heed the sirens blaring from our cell phones mandating another evacuation. Believe me, we left in a panic: pizza parlors with dough still rising; beauty salons with hair littering the floor; offices with phones ringing. We fled on whatever roads remained open to wherever we could find housing or friends willing to take us in.

On August 4th, we watched from our separate hells as a 40,000-foot cloud the color of bruised flesh collapsed over the ridge west of Greenville. It was soon hurling flaming branches and red-hot embers down the mountainside, torching trees as it roared into town. We were transfixed by horror, snatching previously unimaginable images from Facebook, chasing down Twitter links, and trying to make sense of the devastation evolving on infrared maps.

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We were witnessing Greenville’s near-obliteration. The Dixie Fire would thunder right down Main Street with its Western false fronts and tarnished Gold Rush charm. The 150-year-old warehouse converted to a museum years ago flamed up in a blaze of black-and-white photos, historic logging tools, and the genealogy of generations of the Mountain Maidu, the local Native American tribe. Fire gutted the brick-walled Masonic Lodge and the Way Station, our only local watering hole. Much of the town we had fled burned to the ground.

Hotter and Drier

The old-timers didn’t tell us about fires like this. I witnessed nothing remotely as turbulent during a long-ago season as a fire lookout on Dyer Mountain near Lake Almanor. Even firefighters (and my husband used to be one of them) hardened by a decade of recent experience say that this fire is behaving unlike anything they were trained to confront or have ever seen. It has them bamboozled as it circles back toward landscapes it’s already burned, storming through magic forests of old-growth red fir and stately stands of sugar pines, their foot-long cones just beginning to mature.

Dixie is roaring through forests transformed by a changing climate. The planet is simply hotter than it used to be. Worldwide temperatures have increased 2.04 degrees Fahrenheit since 1901. The United States has been warming even faster, adding 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970. In the Sierra Nevada, the 450-mile-long tilted block of granite that lies on California’s border with Nevada, a recent study by climate scientists at UCLA suggested that temperatures could rise a phenomenal 7 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. All that heat is grilling brush and small trees practically to the point of spontaneous combustion, priming them for the smallest spark. Scientists say that the number of days when Sierra forests are likely to burn has increased by 5% since the 1970s.

Nighttime temperatures are also rising, further confounding the efforts of firefighters to control such blazes. They count on cooler air and higher humidity after dark to help them in aggressive attacks. According to researchers at the Western Regional Climate Center in Reno, California’s overnight lows are now running about 2 degrees Fahrenheit above the average for the 1981-2010 period that climate scientists use as a benchmark. Robbed of their after-dark advantages, firefighters report seeing flames torching off the crowns of trees in the middle of the night, something they’re not faintly used to.

The Sierra air is drier, too. We used to brag about our low humidity, mocking our East Coast friends dripping sweat on a 90-degree day while we basked in dry heat. Now, that’s a liability. Decreasing relative humidity has helped boost the number of days each year when forests are vulnerable to wildfire. It also accelerates evaporation from leaves, brush, and even dead trees, heightening the risk of intense fires and so exacerbating the challenge for firefighters.

Then there’s the wind. Once upon a time, on hot Sierra summer days, we welcomed the breezes that stirred the air and cooled us. This summer, the least stirring of leaves instills fear. Dixie’s erratic winds have, in fact, blown flames right back into previously burned areas, circling around the lines firefighters have built to try to control the fire.

Climate change doesn’t start wildfires. The vast majority are caused by human activity. But by drying out trees, chaparral, and other vegetation, it creates a warmer, more arid world, one ever more susceptible to extreme fire behavior. PG&E, which owns more than 130,000 acres of California, has reported an increase in fire vulnerability in the area it serves from 15% in 2019 to 50% by 2021.

The utility company has all but admitted responsibility for starting the Dixie Fire. If that proves true it would be the fourth such wildfire linked to it, a record that reeks of blatant neglect of fundamental power-line maintenance. PG&E officials have touted their routine inspections of the two power poles located where the fire started. They found nothing wrong, they reported to the California Public Utilities Commission. But the company also considers the span of power line near where the fire started to be among the top 20% of its distribution lines most likely to ignite a wildfire by tree contact. Keep in mind that the Dixie Fire started less than a mile from where PG&E’s power lines started the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and burned 18,804 buildings.

Will corporate executives be held accountable for the Dixie Fire? Will they lose any sleep over the burly backhoe operator weeping publicly about the loss of his home with its newly remodeled kitchen? Will they spare a thought for the weary family of seven wandering through Safeway wondering how, as exiles, they’ll even pay for their groceries?

Climate Refugees

All of us who live in the mountainous West have come to expect wildfires. We don’t pack up at the first puff of smoke. During the early days after Dixie had started 50 miles down the Feather River Canyon from Greenville, I felt safe. Even when burning trees were visible from my office window as I grabbed photos and notebooks to evacuate, I still felt confident that I would return to my books and 40 years of journalism files, pieces ranging from local murders to ones on refugees from the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster in Fukushima, Japan, and forest fires burning in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in the Ukraine.

It took two more days before the winds shifted, blowing flames down North Canyon toward the town, overwhelming our firefighters. Today, all that’s left in Greenville’s downtown commercial area is devastation. The places I knew for so long are now gone, including Hunter Hardware, the business that welcomed us when my husband and I moved to Indian Valley, two blond toddlers in tow; Sterling Sage, where I bought jewelry for my granddaughter from the town’s most dapper businessman; and Village Drug, where our Plumas County supervisor took calls from constituents while dispensing medicines and school supplies. That was, in fact, Greenville’s oldest building and housed the office I shared with a poet/playwright and a corporate administrator with a passion for knitting that we liked to call Fiber, Fact, and Fiction. Now, it’s all ash.

How do you weigh the loss of such businesses against the hundreds of friends, neighbors, and acquaintances whose homes have been destroyed? Most of us waited days for some kind of confirmation about whether ours had made it or not, hanging on every word from state fire officials who described the advancing flames in twice-daily video meetings. We searched the Internet for shards of information and poured over maps with tiny red heat dots that might spell out our futures.

I danced for joy when I learned that my house had indeed survived, along with the timber-frame barn my husband had built from our own hand-milled timber. My ebullience plummeted into mourning for the sweet recluse who lost his beloved books and the widow whose family photos were all gone. Along Main Street in the town’s historic residential area, not a house remains, not even a single standing wall among brick walkways and charred garden plots.

Those 678 homeless neighbors of ours join millions around the world fleeing cyclones, hurricanes, fires, and floods, among other weather events brought to a boil by a changing climate. Like the majority of them, the fire that forced us to leave our homes was local and, given the size of this planet, relatively small-scale. It dominated the news cycle for a week or two before being displaced (without being faintly extinguished) by those fleeing hurricane Ida in Louisiana and political refugees trying to escape Afghanistan.

Greenville has plenty of experience with privation. As the county’s least affluent town we’ve rallied to keep our high school open when county officials planned to close it. We’ve rallied to install sidewalks and retain a health clinic after our only hospital closed. We may disagree about everything from who should be fire chief to the value of Covid vaccinations, but bully Greenville with an outside threat and we’re as one. The enemies of our enemies become our friends.

Today, we are facing a threat like no other. How do you rebuild a community with no post office, no library, and where, in the absence of public transportation, the closest gas station is now a 50-mile round trip? Who will step forward for those too broken to restore themselves?

Greenville and Indian Valley are now poised between devastation and possibility. Even as smoke still rises from the ashes, there are faint signs of hope. The generation that left for far-flung parts of the world has organized online donations and relief sites offering food, laptops, vehicles, and cash to the newly homeless. There are plans to expand the community garden from a concept and empty raised beds to a future bounty of vegetables, fruits, and flowers. After a century of genocide and abuse, the Mountain Maidu, the area’s first residents, have energized us with their vision of land and species restoration as they assume stewardship of around 3,000 acres of their ancestral territories. Some of us want to mount the works of local artists as four-by-four posters beautifying the fences designed to protect us from the toxic waste of burned-out buildings. Others are planning to stage local musical events on the lawn of the high school that somehow miraculously survived.

It’s a long, tough climb from incineration to inspiration for a community that’s physically scattered and emotionally shattered. Many of us remain in mind-numbing limbo, still awaiting word from some anonymous official that will allow us to return to homes, if we have them. Those of us allowed back, as my husband and I have been, are halted by National Guard troops and required to show paperwork proving that we belong here. We have little prospect of Internet or landline telephone service any time soon and we no longer expect consistent electricity from PG&E.

What may save us is the very reputation for defiance that has often been our undoing. We don’t accept defeat easily, not even against an adversary as daunting as climate change. As long as the odds are stacked against us, the independent and ornery will respond. If the soul of a community is its resilience, Greenville will revive. Still, we’re just a hint of what’s to come in this country and on this planet if all of us don’t change things in major ways. Remember, you could become a climate refugee, too.

Copyright 2021 Jane Braxton Little

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his 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.

Jane Braxton Little is an independent journalist who writes about science and natural resources for publications that include the Atlantic, Audubon, National Geographic, and Scientific American. She moved to Plumas County in 1969 for a summer that has yet to end.


Despite Departure from Afghanistan, America still Has an Archipelago of 750 Military Bases around the World Fri, 20 Aug 2021 04:04:16 +0000 By Patterson Deppen | –

( ) – It was the spring of 2003 during the American-led invasion of Iraq. I was in second grade, living on a U.S. military base in Germany, attending one of the Pentagon’s many schools for families of servicemen stationed abroad. One Friday morning, my class was on the verge of an uproar. Gathered around our homeroom lunch menu, we were horrified to find that the golden, perfectly crisped French fries we adored had been replaced with something called “freedom fries.”

“What are freedom fries?” we demanded to know.

Our teacher quickly reassured us by saying something like: “Freedom fries are the exact same thing as French fries, just better.” Since France, she explained, was not supporting “our” war in Iraq, “we just changed the name, because who needs France anyway?” Hungry for lunch, we saw little reason to disagree. After all, our most coveted side dish would still be there, even if relabeled.

While 20 years have passed since then, that otherwise obscure childhood memory came back to me last month when, in the midst of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, President Biden announced an end to American “combat” operations in Iraq. To many Americans, it may have appeared that he was just keeping his promise to end the two forever wars that came to define the post-9/11 “global war on terror.” However, much as those “freedom fries” didn’t actually become something else, this country’s “forever wars” may not really be coming to an end either. Rather, they are being relabeled and seem to be continuing via other means.

Having closed down hundreds of military bases and combat outposts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon will now shift to an “advise-and-assist” role in Iraq. Meanwhile, its top leadership is now busy “pivoting” to Asia in pursuit of new geostrategic objectives primarily centered around “containing” China. As a result, in the Greater Middle East and significant parts of Africa, the U.S. will be trying to keep a far lower profile, while remaining militarily engaged through training programs and private contractors.

As for me, two decades after I finished those freedom fries in Germany, I’ve just finished compiling a list of American military bases around the world, the most comprehensive possible at this moment from publicly available information. It should help make greater sense of what could prove to be a significant period of transition for the U.S. military.

Despite a modest overall decline in such bases, rest assured that the hundreds that remain will play a vital role in the continuation of some version of Washington’s forever wars and could also help facilitate a new Cold War with China. According to my current count, our country still has more than 750 significant military bases implanted around the globe. And here’s the simple reality: unless they are, in the end, dismantled, America’s imperial role on this planet won’t end either, spelling disaster for this country in the years to come.

Tallying Up the “Bases of Empire”

I was tasked with compiling what we’ve (hopefully) called the “2021 U.S. Overseas Base Closure List” after reaching out to Leah Bolger, president of World BEYOND War. As part of a group known as the Overseas Base Realignment and Closure Coalition (OBRACC) committed to shutting down such bases, Bolger put me in contact with its co-founder David Vine, the author of the classic book on the subject, Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World.

Bolger, Vine, and I then decided to put together just such a new list as a tool for focusing on future U.S. base closures around the world. In addition to providing the most comprehensive accounting of such overseas bases, our research also further confirms that the presence of even one in a country can contribute significantly to anti-American protests, environmental destruction, and ever greater costs for the American taxpayer.

In fact, our new count does show that their total number globally has declined in a modest fashion (and even, in a few cases, fallen dramatically) over the past decade. From 2011 on, nearly a thousand combat outposts and a modest number of major bases have been closed in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in Somalia. Just a little over five years ago, David Vine estimated that there were around 800 major U.S. bases in more than 70 countries, colonies, or territories outside the continental United States. In 2021, our count suggests that the figure has fallen to approximately 750. Yet, lest you think that all is finally heading in the right direction, the number of places with such bases has actually increased in those same years.

Since the Pentagon has generally sought to conceal the presence of at least some of them, putting together such a list can be complicated indeed, starting with how one even defines such a “base.” We decided that the simplest way was to use the Pentagon’s own definition of a “base site,” even if its public counts of them are notoriously inaccurate. (I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that its figures are invariably too low, never too high.)

So, our list defined such a major base as any “specific geographic location that has individual land parcels or facilities assigned to it… that is, or was owned by, leased to, or otherwise under the jurisdiction of a Department of Defense Component on behalf of the United States.”

Using this definition helps to simplify what counts and what doesn’t, but it also leaves much out of the picture. Not included are significant numbers of small ports, repair complexes, warehouses, fueling stations, and surveillance facilities controlled by this country, not to speak of the nearly 50 bases the American government directly funds for the militaries of other countries. Most appear to be in Central America (and other parts of Latin America), places familiar indeed with the presence of the U.S. military, which has been involved in 175 years of military interventions in the region.

Still, according to our list, American military bases overseas are now scattered across 81 countries, colonies, or territories on every continent except Antarctica. And while their total numbers may be down, their reach has only continued to expand. Between 1989 and today, in fact, the military has more than doubled the number of places in which it has bases from 40 to 81.

This global presence remains unprecedented. No other imperial power has ever had the equivalent, including the British, French, and Spanish empires. They form what Chalmers Johnson, former CIA consultant turned critic of U.S. militarism, once referred to as an “empire of bases” or a “globe-girdling Base World.”

As long as this count of 750 military bases in 81 places remains a reality, so, too, will U.S. wars. As succinctly put by David Vine in his latest book, The United States of War, “Bases frequently beget wars, which can beget more bases, which can beget more wars, and so on.”

Over the Horizon Wars?

In Afghanistan, where Kabul fell to the Taliban earlier this week, our military had only recently ordered a rushed, late-in-the-night withdrawal from its last major stronghold, Bagram Airfield, and no U.S. bases remain there. The numbers have similarly fallen in Iraq where that military now controls only six bases, while earlier in this century the number would have been closer to 505, ranging from large ones to small military outposts.

Dismantling and shutting down such bases in those lands, in Somalia, and in other countries as well, along with the full-scale departure of American military forces from two of those three countries, were historically significant, no matter how long they took, given the domineering “boots on the ground” approach they once facilitated. And why did such changes occur when they did? The answer has much to do with the staggering human, political, and economic costs of these endless failed wars. According to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, the toll of just those remarkably unsuccessful conflicts in Washington’s war on terror was tremendous: minimally 801,000 deaths (with more on the way) since 9/11 in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen.

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The weight of such suffering was, of course, disproportionately carried by the people of the countries who have faced Washington’s invasions, occupations, air strikes, and interference over almost two decades. More than 300,000 civilians across those and other countries have been killed and an estimated nearly 37 million more displaced. Around 15,000 U.S. forces, including soldiers and private contractors, have also died. Untold scores of devastating injuries have occurred as well to millions of civilians, opposition fighters, and American troops. In total, it’s estimated that, by 2020, these post-9/11 wars had cost American taxpayers $6.4 trillion.

While the overall number of U.S. military bases abroad may be in decline as the failure of the war on terror sinks in, the forever wars are likely to continue more covertly through Special Operations forces, private military contractors, and ongoing air strikes, whether in Iraq, Somalia, or elsewhere.

In Afghanistan, even when there were only 650 U.S. troops left, guarding the U.S. embassy in Kabul, the U.S. was still intensifying its air strikes in the country. It launched a dozen in July alone, recently killing 18 civilians in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. According to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, attacks like these were being carried out from a base or bases in the Middle East equipped with “over the horizon capabilities,” supposedly located in the United Arab Emirates, or UAE, and Qatar. In this period, Washington has also been seeking (as yet without success) to establish new bases in countries that neighbor Afghanistan for continued surveillance, reconnaissance, and potentially air strikes, including possibly leasing Russian military bases in Tajikistan.

And mind you, when it comes to the Middle East, the UAE and Qatar are just the beginning. There are U.S. military bases in every Persian Gulf country except Iran and Yemen: seven in Oman, three in the UAE, 11 in Saudi Arabia, seven in Qatar, 12 in Bahrain, 10 in Kuwait, and those six still in Iraq. Any of these could potentially contribute to the sorts of “over the horizon” wars the U.S. now seems committed to in countries like Iraq, just as its bases in Kenya and Djibouti are enabling it to launch air strikes in Somalia.

New Bases, New Wars

Meanwhile, halfway around the world, thanks in part to a growing push for a Cold War-style “containment” of China, new bases are being constructed in the Pacific.

There are, at best, minimal barriers in this country to building military bases overseas. If Pentagon officials determine that a new $990 million base is needed in Guam to “enhance warfighting capabilities” in Washington’s pivot to Asia, there are few ways to prevent them from doing so.

Camp Blaz, the first Marine Corps base to be built on the Pacific Island of Guam since 1952, has been under construction since 2020 without the slightest pushback or debate over whether it was needed or not from policymakers and officials in Washington or among the American public. Even more new bases are being proposed for the nearby Pacific Islands of Palau, Tinian, and Yap. On the other hand, a locally much-protested new base in Henoko on the Japanese island of Okinawa, the Futenma Replacement Facility, is “unlikely” ever to be completed.

Little of any of this is even known in this country, which is why a public list of the full extent of such bases, old and new, around the world is of importance, however difficult it may be to produce based on the patchy Pentagon record available. Not only can it show the far-reaching extent and changing nature of this country’s imperial efforts globally, it could also act as a tool for promoting future base closures in places like Guam and Japan, where there at present are 52 and 119 bases respectively — were the American public one day to seriously question where their tax dollars were really going and why.

Just as there’s very little standing in the way of the Pentagon constructing new bases overseas, there is essentially nothing preventing President Biden from closing them. As OBRACC points out, while there is a process involving congressional authorization for closing any domestic U.S. military base, no such authorization is needed abroad. Unfortunately, in this country there is as yet no significant movement for ending that Baseworld of ours. Elsewhere, however, demands and protests aimed at shutting down such bases from Belgium to Guam, Japan to the United Kingdom — in nearly 40 countries all told — have taken place within the past few years.

In December 2020, however, even the highest-ranking U.S. military official, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, asked: “Is every one of those [bases] absolutely positively necessary for the defense of the United States?”

In short, no. Anything but. Still, as of today, despite the modest decline in their numbers, the 750 or so that remain are likely to play a vital role in any continuation of Washington’s “forever wars,” while supporting the expansion of a new Cold War with China. As Chalmers Johnson warned in 2009, “Few empires of the past voluntarily gave up their dominions in order to remain independent, self-governing polities… If we do not learn from their examples, our decline and fall is foreordained.”

In the end, new bases only mean new wars and, as the last nearly 20 years have shown, that’s hardly a formula for success for American citizens or others around the world.

Copyright 2021 Patterson Deppen

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his 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.

Patterson Deppen serves on the editorial board at E-International Relations where he is co-editor for student essays. A member of the Overseas Base Realignment and Closure Coalition, he recently completed research on the 750 U.S. military bases overseas in conjunction with World BEYOND War. The full listing of bases will appear in the future.


America’s Child Soldiers: JROTC and the Militarizing of America Mon, 09 Aug 2021 04:02:50 +0000 By Ann Jones | –

( – Congress surely meant to do the right thing when, in the fall of 2008, it passed the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA). The law was designed to protect kids worldwide from being forced to fight the wars of Big Men. From then on, any country that coerced children into becoming soldiers was supposed to lose all U.S. military aid.

It turned out, however, that Congress — in its rare moment of concern for the next generation — had it all wrong. In its greater wisdom, the White House found countries like Chad and Yemen so vital to the national interest of the United States that it preferred to overlook what happened to the children in their midst.

As required by CSPA, this year the State Department once again listed 10 countries that use child soldiers: Burma (Myanmar), the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Seven of them were scheduled to receive millions of dollars in U.S. military aid as well as what’s called “U.S. Foreign Military Financing.” That’s a shell game aimed at supporting the Pentagon and American weapons makers by handing millions of taxpayer dollars over to such dodgy “allies,” who must then turn around and buy “services” from the Pentagon or “materiel” from the usual merchants of death. You know the crowd: Lockheed Martin, McDonnell Douglas, Northrop Grumman, and so on.

Here was a chance for Washington to teach a set of countries to cherish their young people, not lead them to the slaughter. But in October, as it has done every year since CSPA became law, the White House again granted whole or partial “waivers” to five countries on the State Department’s “do not aid” list: Chad, South Sudan, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia.

Too bad for the young — and the future — of those countries. But look at it this way: Why should Washington help the children of Sudan or Yemen escape war when it spares no expense right here at home to press our own impressionable, idealistic, ambitious American kids into military “service”?

It should be no secret that the United States has the biggest, most efficiently organized, most effective system for recruiting child soldiers in the world. With uncharacteristic modesty, however, the Pentagon doesn’t call it that. Its term is “youth development program.”

Pushed by multiple high-powered, highly paid public relations and advertising firms under contract to the Department of Defense, the program is a many splendored thing. Its major public face is the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps or JROTC.

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What makes this child-soldier recruiting program so striking is that the Pentagon carries it out in plain sight in hundreds and hundreds of private, military, and public high schools across the U.S.

Unlike the notorious West African warlords Foday Sankoh and Charles Taylor (both brought before international tribunals on charges of war crimes), the Pentagon doesn’t actually kidnap children and drag them bodily into battle. It seeks instead to make its young “cadets” what John Stuart Mill once termed “willing slaves,” so taken in by the master’s script that they accept their parts with a gusto that passes for personal choice. To that end, JROTC works on their not-yet-fully-developed minds, instilling what the program’s textbooks call “patriotism” and “leadership,” as well as a reflexive attention to authoritarian commands.

The scheme is much more sophisticated — so much more “civilized” — than any ever devised in Liberia or Sierra Leone, and it works. The result is the same, however: kids get swept into soldiering, a job they will not be free to leave, and in the course of which they may be forced to commit spirit-breaking atrocities. When they start to complain or crack under pressure, in the U.S. as in West Africa, out come the drugs.

The JROTC program, still spreading in high schools across the country, costs U.S. taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars annually. It has cost some unknown number of taxpayers their children.

The Acne and Braces Brigades

I first stumbled upon JROTC kids a few years ago at a Veterans Day parade in Boston. Before it got underway, I wandered among the uniformed groups taking their places along the Boston Common. There were some old geezers sporting the banners of their American Legion posts, a few high school bands, and some sharp young men in smart dress uniforms: greater Boston’s military recruiters.

Then there were the kids. The acne and braces brigades, 14- and 15-year-olds in military uniforms carrying rifles against their shoulders. Some of the girl groups sported snazzy white gloves.

Far too many such groups, with far too many underage children, stretched the length of Boston Common. They represented all branches of the military and many different local communities, though almost all of them were brown or black in hue: African Americans, Hispanics, the children of immigrants from Vietnam and other points South. Just last month in New York City, I watched similarly color-coded JROTC squads march up Fifth Avenue on Veterans’ Day. One thing JROTC is not is a rainbow coalition.

In Boston, I asked a 14-year-old boy why he had joined JROTC. He wore a junior Army uniform and toted a rifle nearly as big as himself. He said, “My dad, he left us, and my mom, she works two jobs, and when she gets home, well, she’s not big on structure. But they told us at school you gotta have a lot of structure if you want to get somewhere. So I guess you could say I joined up for that.”

A group of girls, all Army JROTC members, told me they took classes with the boys but had their own all-girl (all-black) drill team that competed against others as far away as New Jersey. They showed me their medals and invited me to their high school to see their trophies. They, too, were 14 or 15. They jumped up and down like the enthusiastic young teens they were as we talked. One said, “I never got no prizes before.”

Their excitement took me back. When I was their age, growing up in the Midwest, I rose before daybreak to march around a football field and practice close formation maneuvers in the dark before the school day began. Nothing would have kept me from that “structure,” that “drill,” that “team,” but I was in a marching band and the weapon I carried was a clarinet. JROTC has entrapped that eternal youthful yearning to be part of something bigger and more important than one’s own pitiful, neglected, acne-spattered self. JROTC captures youthful idealism and ambition, twists it, trains it, arms it, and sets it on the path to war.

A Little History

The U.S. Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps was conceived as part of the National Defense Act of 1916 in the midst of World War I. In the aftermath of that war, however, only six high schools took up the military’s offer of equipment and instructors. A senior version of ROTC was made compulsory on many state college and university campuses, despite the then-controversial question of whether the government could compel students to take military training.

By 1961, ROTC had become an optional program, popular at some schools, but unwelcome on others. It soon disappeared altogether from the campuses of many elite colleges and progressive state universities, pushed out by protest against the war in Vietnam and pulled out by the Pentagon, which insisted on maintaining discriminatory policies (especially regarding sexual preference and gender) outlawed in university codes of conduct. When it gave up “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2011 and offered a menu of substantial research grants for such institutions, elite universities like Harvard and Yale welcomed the military back with unbecoming deference.

During ROTC’s exile from such institutions, however, it put down roots on college campuses in states that made no fuss about discrimination, while the Pentagon expanded its recruitment program in high schools. Almost half a century after Army JROTC was established, the Reserve Officers Training Corps Vitalization Act of 1964 opened such junior training to all branches of the military. What’s more, the number of JROTC units nationwide, previously capped at 1,200, climbed rapidly until 2001, when the very idea of imposing limits on the program disappeared.

The reason was clear enough. In 1973, the Nixon administration discarded the draft in favor of a standing professional “all-volunteer” army. But where were those professionals to be found? And how exactly were they to be persuaded to “volunteer”? Since World War II, ROTC programs at institutions of higher education had provided about 60% of commissioned officers. But an army needs foot soldiers.

Officially, the Pentagon claims that JROTC is not a recruiting program. Privately, it never considered it to be anything else. Army JROTC now describes itself as having “evolved from a source of enlisted recruits and officer candidates to a citizenship program devoted to the moral, physical, and educational uplift of American youth.” Yet former Defense Secretary William Cohen, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee in 2000, named JROTC “one of the best recruiting devices that we could have.”

With that unacknowledged mission in hand, the Pentagon pushed for a goal first advanced in 1991 by Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: the establishment of 3,500 JROTC units to “uplift” students in high schools nationwide. The plan was to expand into “educationally and economically deprived areas.” The shoddy schools of the inner cities, the rust belt, the deep South, and Texas became rich hunting grounds. By the start of 2013, the Army alone was recycling 4,000 retired officers to run its programs in 1,731 high schools. All together, Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine JROTC units now flourish in 3,402 high schools nationwide — 65% of them in the South — with a total enrollment of 557,129 kids.

Getting With the Program

Here’s how the program works. The Department of Defense spends several hundred million dollars — $365 million in 2013 — to provide uniforms, Pentagon-approved textbooks, and equipment to JROTC, as well as part of the instructors’ salaries. Those instructors, assigned by the military (not the schools), are retired officers. They continue to collect federal retirement pay, even though the schools are required to cover their salaries at levels they would receive on active duty. The military then reimburses the school for about half of that hefty pay, but the school is still out a bundle.

Ten years ago, the American Friends Service Committee found that the true cost of JROTC programs to local school districts was “often much higher — in some cases more than double — the cost claimed by the Department of Defense.” In 2004, local school districts were shelling out “more than $222 million in personnel costs alone.”

Several principals who spoke to me about the program praised the Pentagon for subsidizing the school budget, but in this matter they evidently don’t grasp their own school finances. The fact is that public schools offering JROTC programs actually subsidize the Pentagon’s recruitment drive. In fact, a JROTC class costs schools (and taxpayers) significantly more than would a regular physical education or American history course — for both of which it is often considered a suitable substitute.

Local schools have no control over the Pentagon’s prescribed JROTC curricula, which are inherently biased toward militarism. Many school systems simply adopt JROTC programs without so much as a peek at what the students will be taught. The American Friends Service Committee, Veterans for Peace, and other civic groups have compiled evidence that these classes are not only more costly than regular school courses, but also inferior in quality.

What else but inferior quality might be expected from self-serving textbooks written by competing branches of the military and used by retired military men with no teaching qualifications or experience? For one thing, neither the texts nor the instructors teach the sort of critical thinking central to the best school curricula today. Instead, they inculcate obedience to authority, inspire fear of “enemies,” and advance the primacy of military might in American foreign policy.

Civic groups have raised a number of other objections to JROTC, ranging from discriminatory practices — against gays, immigrants, and Muslims, for example — to dangerous ones, such as bringing guns into schools (of all places). Some units even set up shooting ranges where automatic rifles and live ammunition are used. JROTC embellishes the dangerous mystique of such weapons, making them objects to covet, embrace, and jump at the chance to use.

In its own defense, the program publicizes a selling point widely accepted across the United States: that it provides “structure,” keeps kids from dropping out of school, and turns boys (and now girls) of “troubled” background into “men” who, without JROTC to save them (and the rest of us from them), would become junkies or criminals or worse. Colin Powell, the first ROTC grad ever to rise to the military’s top job, peddled just this line in his memoir My American Journey. “Inner-city kids,” he wrote, “many from broken homes, [find] stability and role models in Junior ROTC.”

No evidence exists to prove these claims, however, apart from student testimonials like that offered by the 14-year-old who told me he joined up for “structure.” That kids (and their parents) fall for this sales pitch is a measure of their own limited options. The great majority of students find better, more life-affirming “structure” in school itself through academic courses, sports, choirs, bands, science or language clubs, internships — you name it — in schools where such opportunities exist. Yet it is precisely in schools with such programs that administrators, teachers, parents, and kids working together are most likely to succeed in keeping JROTC out. It is left to the “economically and educationally deprived” school systems targeted by the Pentagon to cut such “frills” and blow their budgets on a colonel or two who can offer students in need of “stability and role models” a promising, though perhaps very short, future as soldiers.

School Days

In one such Boston inner city school, predominantly black, I sat in on JROTC classes where kids watched endless films of soldiers on parade, then had a go at it themselves in the school gym, rifles in hand. (I have to admit that they could march far better than squads of the Afghan National Army, which I’ve also observed, but is that something to be proud of?) Since those classes often seemed to consist of hanging out, students had lots of time to chat with the Army recruiter whose desk was conveniently located in the JROTC classroom.

They chatted with me, too. A 16-year-old African American girl, who was first in her class and had already signed up for the Army, told me she would make the military her career. Her instructor — a white colonel she regarded as the father she never had at home — had led the class to believe that “our war” would go on for a very long time, or as he put it, “until we’ve killed every last Muslim on Earth.” She wanted to help save America by devoting her life to that “big job ahead.”

Stunned, I blurted out, “But what about Malcolm X?” He grew up in Boston and a boulevard not far from the school was named in his honor. “Wasn’t he a Muslim?” I asked.

“Oh no, ma’am,” she said. “Malcolm X was an American.”

A senior boy, who had also signed up with the recruiter, wanted to escape the violence of city streets. He joined up shortly after one of his best friends, caught in the crossfire of somebody else’s fight, was killed in a convenience store just down the block from the school. He told me, “I’ve got no future here. I might as well be in Afghanistan.” He thought his chances of survival would be better there, but he worried about the fact that he had to finish high school before reporting for “duty.” He said, “I just hope I can make it to the war.”

What kind of school system gives boys and girls such “choices”? What kind of country?

What goes on in schools in your town? Isn’t it time you found out?

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his 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.

Copyright Ann Jones 2021

Ann Jones, a TomDispatch regular, is a non-resident fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. She is at work on a book about social democracy in Norway (and its absence in the United States). She is the author of several books, including Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan and most recently They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — the Untold Storyy, a Dispatch Books original.


Moral Injury and Forever Wars: The after-action Military Suicides Americans don’t Want to Hear About Wed, 04 Aug 2021 04:04:50 +0000 By Kelly Denton-Borhaug | –

( – This summer, it seemed as if we Americans couldn’t wait to return to our traditional July 4th festivities. Haven’t we all been looking for something to celebrate? The church chimes in my community rang out battle hymns for about a week. The utility poles in my neighborhood were covered with “Hometown Hero” banners hanging proudly, sporting the smiling faces of uniformed local veterans from our wars. Fireworks went off for days, sparklers and cherry bombs and full-scale light shows filling the night sky.

But all the flag-waving, the homespun parades, the picnics and military bands, the flowery speeches and self-congratulatory messages can’t dispel a reality, a truth that’s right under our noses: all is not well with our military brothers and sisters. The starkest indicator of that is the rising number of them who are taking their own lives. A new report by Brown University’s Costs of War Project calculates that, in the post-9/11 era so far, four times as many veterans and active-duty military have committed suicide as died in war operations.

While July 4th remembrances across the country focused on the symbols and institutions of war and militarization, most of the celebrants seemed far less interested in hearing from current and former military personnel. After all, less than 1% of Americans have been burdened with waging Washington’s wars in these years, even as we taxpayers have funded an ever-more enormous military infrastructure.

As for me, though, I’ve been seeking out as many of those voices as I could for a long, long time. And here’s what I’ve learned: the truths so many of them tell sharply conflict with the remarkably light-hearted and unthinking celebrations of war we experienced this July and so many Julys before it. I keep wondering why so few of us are focusing on one urgent question: Why are so many of our military brothers and sisters taking their own lives?

The Moral Injuries of War

The term moral injury is now used in military and healthcare settings to identify a deep existential pain destroying the lives of too many active-duty personnel and vets. In these years of forever wars, when the moral consciences of such individuals collided with the brutally harsh realities of militarization and killing, the result has been a sharp, sometimes death-dealing dissonance. Think of moral injury as an invisible wound of war. It represents at least part of the explanation for that high suicide rate. And it’s implicated in more than just those damning suicides: an additional 500,000 troops in the post-9/11 era have been diagnosed with debilitating, not fully understood symptoms that make their lives remarkably unlivable.

I first heard the term moral injury about 10 years ago at a conference at Riverside Church in New York City, where Jonathan Shay, the renowned military psychologist, spoke about it. For decades he had provided psychological care for veterans of the Vietnam War who were struggling with unremitting resentment, guilt, and shame in their post-deployment lives. They just couldn’t get on with those very lives after their military experiences. They had, it seemed, lost trust in themselves and anyone else.

Still, Shay found that none of the typical mental-health diagnoses seemed to fit their symptoms. This wasn’t post-traumatic stress disorder — a hyper-vigilance, anxiety, and set of fears arising from traumatic experience. No, what came to be known as moral injury seemed to result from a sense that the very center of one’s being had been assaulted. If war’s intent is to inflict physical injury and destruction, and if the trauma of war afflicts people’s emotional and psychic well-being, moral injury describes an invisible wound that burns away at a person’s very soul. The Iraq War veteran and writer Kevin Powers describes it as “acid seeping down into your soul, and then your soul is gone.”

A central feature of moral injury is a sense of having betrayed one’s own deepest moral commitments, as well as of being betrayed morally by others. People who are suffering from moral injury feel there’s nothing left in their world to trust, including themselves. For them, any notion of “a shared moral covenant” has been shattered. But how does anyone live in a world without moral guideposts, even flawed ones? The world of modern war, it seems, not only destroys the foundations of life for its targets and victims, but also for its perpetrators.

Difficult Truths from Those on the Front Lines of Our Wars

For civilians like me, there’s no way to understand moral injury without listening to those afflicted with it. I’ve been doing so to try to make sense of our culture of war for years now. As a religious studies scholar, I’ve been especially concerned about the ways in which so many of us give American-style war a sacred quality. Think, for instance, about the meme that circulates during national holidays like the recent July 4th, or Veterans Day, or Memorial Day: “Remember that only two forces ever agreed to die for you: Jesus Christ and the American soldier. One died for your freedom, the other for your soul; pass it on!”

How, I wonder, do such messages further shame and silence those already struggling with moral injury whose experiences have led them to see war as anything but sacred?

It’s been years since I first heard Andy, a veteran of the Iraq War, testify in the most personal way about moral injury at a Philadelphia church. He’s part of a family with a long military history. His father and grandfather both served in this country’s wars before, at 17, he enlisted in the Air Force in 1999. He came to work in military intelligence and would eventually be deployed to Iraq.

But all was most definitely not well with Andy when, after 11 years in the Air Force, he returned to civilian life. He found himself struggling in his relationships, unable to function, a mess, and eventually suicidal. He bounced from one mental healthcare provider to the next for eight years without experiencing the slightest sense of relief. On the verge of ending his life, he was referred to a new “Moral Injury Group” led by chaplain Chris Antal and psychologist Peter Yeomans at the Crescenz VA Hospital in Philadelphia. At that moment, Andy decided this would be his last effort before calling it quits and ending his life. Frankly, given what I now know, I’m amazed that he was willing to take that one last chance after so many years of suffering, struggle, and pain to so little purpose.

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The professionals who lead that particular group are remarkably blunt about what they call “the work avoidance” of most citizens — the way that the majority of us fail to take any responsibility for the consequences of the endless wars we’ve been fighting in this century. People, they’ve told me, regularly deflect responsibility by adopting any of three approaches to veterans: by valorizing them (think of the simplistic “thank you for your service/sacrifice” or the implicit message of those “hometown heroes” banners); by pathologizing them (seeing vets as mentally ill and irreparably broken); or by demonizing them (think of the Vietnam-era “baby-killers” moniker). Each of these approaches essentially represses what those veterans could actually tell us about their experiences and our wars.

So, the leaders of the Crescenz VA Moral Injury Group developed an unorthodox approach. They assured Andy that he had an important story to tell, one the nation needed to hear so that civilians could finally “bear the brunt of the burden” of sending him to war. Eight years after leaving the military and a few weeks into that program, he finally revealed for the first time to those caregivers and vets, the event at the root of his own loss of soul. While deployed in Iraq, he had participated in calling in an airstrike that ended up killing 36 Iraqi men, women, and children.

I’ll never forget watching Andy testify about that very moment in the Philadelphia church on Veterans Day before an audience that had expressly indicated its willingness to listen. With palpable anguish, he told how, after the airstrike, his orders were to enter the bombed structure. He was supposed to sift through the bodies to find the supposed target of the strike. Instead, he came upon the lifeless bodies of, as he called them, “proud Iraqis,” including a little girl with a singed Minnie Mouse doll. Those sights and the smell of death were, he told us, “etched on the back of his eyelids forever.” This was the “shame” he carried with him always, an “unholy perpetration,” as he described it.

The day of that attack, he said, he felt his soul leave his body. Over years of listening to veterans’ stories, I realize that I’ve heard similar descriptions again and again. It may seem extreme to speak about one’s very soul being eviscerated, but it shouldn’t be treated as an exaggeration. After all, how can we even imagine what the deaths of so many men, women, and children may have meant for the Iraqi families and communities whose loved ones perished that day?

Andy’s story clarifies a reality Americans badly need to grasp: the destruction of war goes far beyond its intended targets. In the end, its violence is impossible to control. It doesn’t stay in those distant lands where this country has been fighting for so many fruitless years. Andy is the proof of that. His “loss of soul” almost had the direst of consequences, as his own suicidal impulses began to take over. Of that moment and his seemingly eternal imprisonment in the hell of war, he said: “I relive this alone, the steel cylinder heavy with the .38, knowing that to drive one into my own face will free me from this prison, these sights and smells.”

Taking Moral Injury Seriously Goes Against the Grain of American War Culture

Valorizing, pathologizing, and demonizing vets are all ways of refusing to listen to the actual experiences of those who carry out our wars. And for them, returning home often just adds to their difficulties, since so much of what they might say goes against the grain of national culture.

We’re generally brought up to see ourselves as a nation whose military gets the job done, despite the “forever wars” of the last nearly 20 years. Through national rituals, holidays, and institutions, hot embers of intense pride are regularly stoked, highlighting our military as the fiercest and strongest in the world. Many of us identify what it means to be a citizen with belonging to the most feared and powerful armed forces on the planet. As a result, people easily believe that, when the U.S. goes to war, what we’re doing is, almost by definition, moral.

But those who dare to pay attention to the morally injured will find them offering inconvenient and uncomfortable truths that sharply conflict with exactly those assumptions. Recently, I listened to another group of military veterans and combat correspondents who gathered their courage to tell their stories publicly in a unique fashion for The Moral Injuries of War project. Here are just three small examples:

* “The military just teaches you don’t ask questions, and if you figure it out, it really isn’t your business anyway. That part, that probably is the biggest thing, having to do things you wonder about, but you can’t ask a question.”

* “The cynical part of me wants the public to understand that it’s your fault; we are all complicit in all of this horror. I don’t need other people to experience my pain, I need other people to understand that they are complicit in my pain.”

* “People want to say thank you for your service, wave a flag, but you’re left with these experiences that leave you feeling deeply shameful. I burned through any relationship in my life with anybody who loved me. I have this feeling in my gut that something really bad is going to happen. God’s shoe was going to fall on me, I can’t breathe.”

I remember how struck I was at the Veterans Day gathering in that Philadelphia church where I first heard Andy speak, because it was so unlike most such celebrations and commemorations. Instead of laying wreaths or planting crosses in the ground; instead of speeches extolling vets as “the spine of the nation” and praising them for their “ultimate sacrifice,” we did something different. We listened to them tell us about the soul-destroying nature of what actually happened to them during their military service (and what’s happened to them ever since). And in addition to civilians like me, other vets were in those church pews listening, too.

After the testimonies, the VA chaplain leading the ceremony asked us all to come to the front of the church. There, he directed the vets to form a circle facing outwards. Then, he asked the civilians to form a circle around them and face them directly. What happened next challenged and moved me. The chaplain suggested we simply stand in silence for a minute, looking into each other’s eyes. You can’t imagine how slowly that minute passed. More than a few of us had tears running down our cheeks. It was as if we were all holding a painful, sharp, unforgiving reality — but doing it together.

Moral injury is a flashpoint that reveals important truths about our wars and the war-culture that goes with it. If focused on, instead of ignored, it raises uncomfortable questions. In the United States, military service often is described as the epitome of citizenship. Leaders and everyday folks alike claim to value veterans as our most highly esteemed citizens.

I wonder, though, if this isn’t just another way of avoiding a real acknowledgment of the disaster of this country’s twenty-first-century wars. Closing our ears to the veterans who have been on their front lines means ignoring the truths of those wars as well.

If this nation truly esteemed them, wouldn’t we do more to avoid placing them in just the kind of circumstances Andy faced? Wouldn’t our leaders work harder to find other ways of dealing with whatever dangers we confront? Wouldn’t everyday citizens raise more questions about the pervasive “innocent” celebrations of violence on national holidays that only sacralize war-culture as a crucial aspect of what it means to be an American citizen?

For Andy, that Moral Injury Group at the Crescenz VA was the place where his “screaming soul” could be heard. Instead of being “imprisoned by guilt,” he described how he began to feel “empowered” by it to tell the truth about our wars to the rest of us. He hopes that the nation will somehow learn to “bear its brunt of the burden” of those wars and the all-American war-culture that accompanies them in a way that truly matters — a new version of reality that would start with finally listening.

Copyright 2021 Kelly Denton-Borhaug

Checking security forces by The U.S. Army is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Flickr

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his 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.

Kelly Denton-Borhaug has long been investigating how religion and violence collide in American war-culture. She teaches in the global religions department at Moravian University. She is the author of two books, U.S. War-Culture, Sacrifice and Salvation and, more recently, And Then Your Soul is Gone: Moral Injury and U.S. War-Culture.