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,” they’re tapping into that stuttering cliché. 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, they’re 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 be- ing 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?
The history of US military actions is a history of conquest and genocide from the start and chaos and catastrophe ever since: invading and occupying Vietnam and then intentionally expanding that war into neighboring Laos and Cambodia as retribution for the US defeat, a disaster that cost the lives of six thousand people every week for ten years; unleashing a massive shock-and-awe attack on Iraq in 2003 that led to the breakup of that nation and the rise of several reactionary fundamentalist and terrorist formations including ISIS; orchestrating a fifty-year campaign to destabilize and topple the Cuban government; propping up nasty regimes from medieval Saudi Arabia to apartheid South Africa; overthrowing elected presidents in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, and Chile in 1973; instigating constant civil unrest in Venezuela including a successful if short-lived coup in 2002; supporting the communist purge and the genocide that followed in Indonesia in the mid-1960s; participating in the murders of the African freedom fighter Patrice Lumumba in Congo in 1961, the Moroccan anti-imperialist Mehdi Ben Barka in Paris in 1965, the internationalist Che Guevara in Bolivia 1967, and the anti-colonial leader Amílcar Cabral in Guinea-Bissau in 1973; exporting billions of dollars in arms to Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, and reactionary regimes and right-wing subversives the world around. As busy and ambitious as this looks, it’s only the tip of a menacing mega-iceberg, an emblematic list as opposed to an exhaustive survey.
In any case, the swirling vortex of ruin obscures for many North Americans a central source and seed of this overwhelming maelstrom of hostility and bloodshed: the indefensible relationship between the United States and its chief client, Israel. Israel, as everyone knows, was established in 1948 by a people who had experienced the lash of anti-Semitism for centuries, and the immediate colossal horrors of the Holocaust in Europe. What’s often conveniently understated or downplayed in the US, however, is that while understandably wanting to create a refuge for themselves, the founders of the state of Israel dislodged the indigenous inhabitants and destroyed their society, forcing them to become displaced persons and refugees or second-class citizens in their own land ever since.
With generous and unwavering support from the United States, its protector, enabler, and big brother, Israel has flouted UN resolutions and international law—including nuclear agreements, the Geneva conventions, and the “laws of war”—seized Palestinian land and zealously supported the settler movement in the occupied territories with infrastructure and violent force. Israel would stand completely alone in the world if not for the dysfunctional relationship it clings to with the United States— from which it gains billions of dollars in military aid alone.
The Palestinians have the ongoing misfortune of being the victims of the twentieth century’s most notable victims—whose exceptional suffering at the hands of the Nazis is consistently trotted out to justify Israel’s own crimes against humanity. Reactionaries who dream of a Greater Israel, a Promised Land stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates, plot and organize the elimination of all Palestinians one way or another. Under the banner of agony and pain, Israel unleashes murderous military attacks and conducts massive ethnic cleansing campaigns. And yet the reality on the ground is that the Palestinians and the Israeli Jews are so intertwined that there is no separation between them except for the separation of apartheid—two populations living in one land, unequal today, but not necessarily forever.
Justice and democracy do not belong to war; on the contrary, each is easily injured and quickly exterminated in its furnaces. John Dewey observed that “All nations, even those professedly the most democratic” are compelled in war “to turn authoritarian and totalitarian.”1 We can see the wreckage all around us: omnivorous national security and surveillance; the abrogation of privacy and civil liberties; the wide use of mass incarceration; the banality of torture, domestically and internationally; and the undermining of tolerance everywhere. Historically, law and rights yield in the face of war: Abraham Lincoln’s famous suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War; the Palmer Raids following World War I; the mass arrests and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II; illegal imprisonment as policy today. These moves are all defended by the war-makers as necessary during wartime.