The Ever-Bigger Stick

In the words of an American leader,

“The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America….Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy….In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose. The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote…and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world.”

Any guesses who said it, and when? I’m a history nerd, and I wouldn’t have known. Yes, it was President Malaise himself, Jimmy Carter, back in 1979.

Jeez, Jimmy, can't you just turn up the furnace?

Jeez, Jimmy, can't you just turn up the furnace?

What goes around comes around, eh?

Of course, after Carter we had Ronald “morning-in-America” Reagan, and everything was set right. Greed became good, we won the Cold War, and now we just basically kick butt whenever we like. Ol’ Gloom and Doom Jimmy was just such a downer, because we know everything is right with the world.

I came across the Carter quote while reading Andrew Bacevich’s The New American Militarism. It has sat on my shelf for several years; I finally picked it up to see if it had any insights for a bio of Dubya I’ll be starting soon. Bacevich wrote before the Iraqi war turned really ugly, and the surge, and now the gradual pullout. And before Afghanistan started to take on the shape of our next Vietnam. Of course, the key to NAM (huh – isn’t that acronym telling…) is that the militarism exists apart from any one war, or three or five. It is a mindset linked to several key events and attitudes.


"How Americans Are Seduced by War"

Here’s the Cliff Notes version: looming large is the reaction among some Americans, within and without the military, to the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. Throw in the rise of the neocons and the religious right, allies in opposing the cultural upheavals of the 60s, sharing a hatred of the counterculture, hippies, yippies, any challenge to the cultural status quo, yet at times uneasy ideological compatriots in the effort to rebuild America’s military might and project it around the world. Still, they put aside their differences to pursue their common goals (SUBJECTIVE AND PERHAPS UNINFORMED C?WC? ASIDE ALERT: and illustrated a common devotion to American exceptionalism, revealing the hubris that fuels that laughable ideology. Folks, all your assurances of God’s grace and our inherent moral goodness, [ahem] will not make our empire last forever, any more than the Persians’ or Romans’ or Nazis’ or Russians’ faith in their exceptionalism kept them going).

The neocon/fundamentalist union shaped the Republican Party from Reagan onward, and helped fuel the militarism Bacevich fears threatens us today. Then stir in the rise of what he calls World War IV, centered on the American goal of preserving access to cheap Persian Gulf oil. Carter comes into play here, too, since he spelled out his doctrine for the region in 1980, shortly after the Iranian hostage crisis began, just weeks after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan:

“The region…is of great strategic importance: It contains more than two-thirds of the world’s exportable oil….Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

Iran, Afghanistan, conflict in the Middle East – it all seems so familiar. The military interests go even farther back, to FDR’s assurances to protect Saudi Arabia. Oil has shaped our foreign policy for decades. It has led to some of our militarism, though as Bacevich shows, the roots are many. It has helped set up the culture clash between Islam and West that is the latest phase of WWIV, the ongoing, not-ending-anytime-soon war on terror. Count on more militarism, folks.

The war that keeps on giving...

The war that keeps on giving...

Bacevich has a list of prescriptions for ending our addiction to all things martial. Turning back to the Constitution is at the core of them. “Nothing in that compact…commits or even encourages the United States to employ military power to save the rest of humankind or remake the world in its own image.” So enough of the Wilsonian blather from either party, about “making the world safe for democracy,” which is often just about making it safe for our business interests, or asserting our paternalistic “Tut, tut, we know best” attitude. He also calls for truly adhering to the separation of powers, to reign in the executive branch, which in most cases has led us into war while Congress, as Bacevich says, “has time and again shirked its duty.”

One carp I have with the book: While spelling out the ideological factors that underpin the NAM, and the self-serving one (Reagan, Clinton, and others wrapping themselves in the flag and gushing their love of the troops to get elected), Bacevich seems to minimize the role of Congress and the defense contractors in creating this state. The companies want the contracts to keep shareholders happy, so they’re not going to question whether we need every new military system. Hell, they get the former military guys to help lobby for them. The pols want to say they’ve brought jobs to their districts/states, so they can’t say no either. And who can refuse a little PAC money from Boeing or General Dynamics, hmm? Capitalism itself and its role in the current political process make sure the NAM wheels keep on turnin’.

That aside, it’s a good book. Bacevich, a career military guy-turned-diplomatic scholar, is intelligent and infused with a morality shaped by his Catholic faith (OK, that might not carry weight in all quarters, but the American Church does have a strain dedicated to social justice, which I respect). He wrote another book about the end of American exceptionalism. Like me, he thinks its demise would be a good thing. But don’t count on it, not when telling everybody how great they are helps win votes, and some folks like the idea of walking around thrashing others with that big stick.


~ by mburgan on October 8, 2009.

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