A pervasive and frantically promoted proposition that runs loose in the land is that being a military powerhouse makes the United States (and people everywhere) safe, protects freedoms, and is a force for peace and democracy in a threatening, dangerous, and hostile world. It’s not true—not even close—but it has a huge and sticky hold on our imaginations.
When a random US politician tells antiwar protestors picketing a town hall meeting, “It’s because of the sacrifices our troops are making in [fill in the blank: Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, the “Middle East,” Korea, Panama, or wherever turns out to be next] that you have the freedom to stand here and speak out,” s/he is tapping into that stuttering cliché. [My brother, a veteran himself, always responds: “We don’t owe the vets our gratitude, we owe them an apology for sending them into the furnaces of war on a lie.”] When a retired general speaks confidently at a televised congressional hearing, explaining to the credulous audience that the “enemy can be defeated” if only the Pentagon would be granted more funds to purchase more weapons, and then given greater leeway in their deployment and use, he’s issuing the same unexamined and banal truism. When a talking head tells us it’s unfortunate that US economic strength rides on oil, a resource that “happens to come from a nasty neighborhood,” but it’s “a blessing” we have the power to police that part of the world, s/he’s doing the same thing. And when folks across the political spectrum express public gratitude and support for “our fighting men and women overseas,” while refusing to send their own children into those same wars or harboring serious private doubts about the wisdom, purpose, and execution of whatever US adventure is currently in play, they too are situated in that wide open field of received wisdom and diminishing options.
What if we challenged these instances of hypocrisy and defensive dogma, and insisted that there are more honest and straightforward ways to support US military men and women? What if we demanded their immediate decommission and return home, and insisted that they be provided excellent medical and psychological care, good jobs, affordable housing, and the best available educational opportunities—the things every human being deserves? What if we spoke up in the face of that woolly politician and asked him to draw a straight line between free speech and the specific invasion he’s now supporting and explicitly (or at least implicitly) defending? What if we locked arms as we built a growing wave of peace advocates, anticipating and opposing the next aggression, and the next?..
Hope and fierce collective determination are choices; confidence is a politics. We don’t want to minimize the horror, but neither do we want to be sucked into its thrall. Hope is our best collective antidote to cynicism and despair; it’s the capacity to notice or invent alternatives; it’s nourishing the precious sense that standing directly against the world as such is a world that could be, or should be. Whatever is the case stands side by side with what could be or should be the case. Without that vital sense of possibility, doors close, curtains drop, and we become stuck: we cannot adequately oppose injustice; we cannot act freely; we cannot inhabit the most vigorous moral spaces. We are never freer, all of us and each of us, than when we refuse the situations before us as settled and certain and determined—the absolute end of the matter—and break the chains that entangle us, launching ourselves toward the imaginable.