The philosopher George Santayana once observed that, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” As we begin this new year, let us heed Santayana's admonishment and reflect upon our nation's present, and on its past, in the hope that such reflections may suggest lessons to be learned and, most importantly, provide insight into how we may capitalize upon our accomplishments and successes and rectify our mistakes and failures.
Despite a declaration of victory, Iraq is still in turmoil. War rages on in Afghanistan, now America's longest war, and our relationship with Pakistan is tenuous at best. American combat troops are strategically positioned throughout the world as many of influence and standing in this country are ratcheting up the rhetoric for an impending war with Iran. Despite the economic crisis, US military spending is at an all-time high, exceeding the military budgets of the next 15 countries combined, including Russia, China and Britain.
In the face of what can only be described as military fanaticism and the co-opting of American foreign policy by the military-industrial-Congressional complex, saner voices have cautioned restraint, sought justice and fairness, and urged peace rather than war, only to be condemned as irresponsible, unpatriotic, even treasonous, and accused of providing aid, comfort, encouragement and hope to our “enemies.” We are engaged in a global war on terrorism, the voices of the military-industrial-Congressional complex tell us, and all patriotic Americans must unite and avoid dissent and criticism of our leaders and their policies.
“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” George W. Bush warned us shortly after September 11. Ironically, Osama bin Laden, appealing in turn to the Islamic world, echoed this logic. “The entire world is divided into two regions,” he said, “one of faith where there is no hypocrisy and another of infidelity.” Both Bush and bin Laden were clear in their distinctions. Each saw the threat posed by the other as real, grave, and imminent and, in response, launched a multifront and protracted campaign of death and destruction. Bush's world, and now Obama's, is bin Laden's world in some strangely distorted mirror. So, we wage war and they, jihad. In the process, tens of thousands of innocents are murdered, and both sides rationalize the slaughter by appeals to God and to country, masking their maliciousness beneath the flag of a nation or the tenets of a creed.
We ignore or distort the lessons of the past at our peril. Had we learned from the debacle of Vietnam, for example, and of the anti-Communist hysteria that provided a “justification” for war, we would have realized that the exaggerated doomsday rhetoric that characterized the buildup to the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and that we are hearing again with regard to Iran, is intended to incite a frenzy for war and to perpetuate a culture of fear and paranoia by exploiting and exacerbating the anxiety and vulnerability of our citizens regarding threats from enemies foreign and domestic.
Then, as now, we were warned of a real and imminent existential threat – then by Communism, and now by terrorism – to our freedom, our national security and our way of life. Then as now, our political leaders, not having experienced war themselves, failed to understand and appreciate war's horror, insanity, futility, and its cost in blood and treasure. Or perhaps they just didn't care. Tragically, in their arrogance, they saw and continue to see war, even perpetual war, as a viable extension of, or perhaps even a substitute for, diplomacy, and as integral to implementing their foreign policy agenda of global hegemony.
To make war sustainable, they encourage public support – even enthusiasm – for the slaughter by distorting its reality and by fabricating a mythology that portrays war as antiseptic, glorious, heroic and honorable. To cultivate this mythology, they have intimidated, manipulated and controlled the media to discourage complete and accurate reporting and to elicit its cooperation in disseminating lies and misinformation regarding the cause, justification and necessity for war. Further, by blurring the distinction between the war and the warrior, they have portrayed public opposition, protest, and dissent as denigrating, devaluing, and dishonoring the efforts and sacrifices of those who have fought and those who have died “on our behalf.”
Had our political leaders paid closer attention to our experiences fighting the Vietnam War, they would have learned that in guerilla/counterinsurgent wars such as in Iraq and Afghanistan, victory is impossible and quagmire inevitable. They would have realized that a disenfranchised people would endure tremendous sacrifice and struggle heroically and steadfastly against foreign occupiers and aggressors. Tactically, they would have anticipated that the guerilla/insurgents' hit, run and disappear tactics not only nullify the superior weapons technology of the invading/occupying force, but also provide vast war-fighting advantage in concealment, confrontation, intelligence and communication. They would have foreseen the frustration of fighting an enemy indistinguishable from those we claim to be liberating and protecting, and would have understood that the resultant anxiety and stress precipitates a state of conditioned hypervigilance and overreaction in which civilian casualties and deaths become the norm rather than the exception.
They would have realized that this inevitable “kill them all, let God sort them out” mentality, often justified as collateral damage or excused under the rubric of the “fog of war,” abrogates the efforts to win the hearts and minds of the people, increases sympathy and support for the guerillas/insurgents, destroys character, and causes serious psychological, emotional, and moral difficulties for the returning warriors laboring to come to grips with the enormity of their experiences in war. Had our political leaders paid closer attention to the lessons of Vietnam, they would understand that to persevere, to stay the course, to pursue some vague notion of victory or to save face in such a situation is futile, a prescription for even greater disaster, and tantamount to condoning aggression and murder.
Had we as a nation heeded the prescient warnings of former president Dwight D. Eisenhower and the war-savvy Marine Corps general, Smedley Butler, we would have been made aware that despite the charade of humanitarian concern and of dire threats to our freedom and national security, all too often wars are fought for economic gain and corporate greed. Although those of wealth, power, and influence choose to wage, and profit from, war, it is invariably the poor and the working class who must fight. War brings profit and gain to an elite few at the expense of the pain, suffering and deaths of the many. Consequently, “war is a racket,” morally abhorrent and prima facie wrong, and anyone who would unleash such sacrilege upon humankind bears an onerous burden of justification.
In the new year, let us reflect and learn the lessons of the present and the past. Let us resolve to reject a distortion of “patriotism” that requires blind allegiance and unquestioned support for, or participation in, unjust and immoral war characterized by aggression and murder. Such “patriotism” is inconsistent with human decency and with the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy. Such “patriotism” is an abeyance of human reason, a profound failure, both intellectually and morally. Rather, let us aspire to a new patriotism, a true love of country that requires the moral courage to do what is in the best interest of our nation – that is, to critically and objectively evaluate, legally and ethically, the causes and justifications for war. Patriots should celebrate dissent, not repress it; they should speak out against and condemn immoral and illegal war, not support or condone it; they should seek new ideas and all possible viewpoints regarding peaceful diplomatic resolutions of international crises and disagreements, not rush to war.
In the new year, as citizens of the world's only superpower, let us resolve to hold our politicians, generals and corporate executives to the highest moral standards. We can no longer separate ourselves from their actions in the world and must accept responsibility for the coups they plan, the wars they wage and the sweatshops they run. Moreover, those of us who fought in war and know its insanity and horror firsthand have even a greater obligation to ensure that greed, incompetence and misguided patriotism never again turn our children into killers and squander their lives and well-being in another unnecessary and immoral war.
If we are ever to achieve peace, in the new year we must resolve to choose the side of the victims, no matter their national identity, who inevitably become the innocent casualties of war and corporate greed. We must choose the side of justice, not vengeance; of the workers, not those who exploit them; of reason rather than hysteria; of compassion and understanding rather than cruelty and brutality. We must choose the side of peace and not of war.
In this era of globalization, we have become expendable commodities, forced to live in a world increasingly of corporate design, with little concern for justice and fairness, but only profit. Our young people, motivated by economic hardship or enticed by the high-powered salesmanship of military recruiters, have become cannon fodder, forced to shed their blood, sacrifice their lives and become killers while corporations benefit from the mayhem. The critical lessons of our present and our past are clear. In the new year, we must resolve to overcome the narrow perspective of corporatism and nationalism and embrace a universalism. We must reject the bifurcation of Bush, Obama and bin Laden, and realize that our country's borders do not separate us from the rest of humankind. Finally, if we claim to know God, we must resolve to respect her creations and treat all of God's children as our own. Thomas Paine said it best, I think: “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”