Foreword to America’s Oldest Professions: Warring and Spying (available in Kindle version free this week.)
One of the ways in which we commonly handicap our own struggles to reform the bad practices of the U.S. government is by imagining those practices to be degenerative developments taking us away from a purer and nobler past. As Gary Brumback shows in this book, the United States grew out of the idea that (in Thomas Paine’s phrase) it was “common sense” to launch a war to settle political differences, a war that in turn set the new nation free to launch a series of wars against the indigenous people of the continent, followed quickly by a ceaseless string of wars waged in near and far-flung corners of the globe.
This deeply moral, highly readable, and urgently necessary book, which provides a wealth of new information even to a reader like myself who writes on similar topics, takes us from the birth of the United States to the Barack Obama presidency. Brumback documents George Washington’s role as first warrior in chief and first chief spy, and traces that legacy through some 13,000 to 14,000 U.S. military wars/interventions since, operations that have killed some 20 million to 30 million foreign civilians just in the years after World War II, and that have killed more than two and a half million U.S. soldiers over nearly two and a half centuries.
Brumback’s argument is not for “just wars” or more competent spying but for a shift away from these practices. War destroys the natural environment, wastes trillions of dollars, and has no upside. All militarism and spying cost the U.S. government well over $1 trillion a year and rising. In exchange for this investment, which at least matches if it does not exceed the rest of the world combined, the United States leads wealthy nations in inequality, unemployment, food insecurity, life expectancy, prison population, homelessness, and other measures of what all the militarism is supposedly protecting: a way of life.
We’ve been trained to think of war preparations — and the wars that result from being so incredibly prepared for wars — as necessary if regrettable. What if, however, in the long view that this book allows us, war turns out to be counterproductive on its own terms? What if war endangers those who wage it rather than protecting them? Imagine, for a moment, how many countries Canada would have to invade and occupy before it could successfully generate anti-Canadian terrorist networks to rival the hatred and resentment currently organized against the United States.
Brumback goes further, documenting that spying is as useless and counterproductive on its own terms as war is. Most secrets sought and maintained by the U.S. government have literally no strategic value even in terms of the militarist thinking that drives the spying. The CIA straddles the space between keystone cop performances of handing nuclear plans to Iran or grounding flights because a con artist claims to see secret terrorist messages in television broadcasts, and the deadly anti-democratic destruction of overthrowing governments and murdering innocent people with drone strikes. In a “free market” competition, the CIA or the Pentagon would lose out to an agency that did literally nothing, much less to a department that worked toward peace, justice, and stability through nonviolent means.
So, what drives what has come to look like war for the sake of war and spying for the sake of spying? Brumback proposes the useful term “badvantages” to categorize features of U.S. society that are not necessarily “roots” or “causes” of war but which facilitate war when found in combination. This section of the book provides an excellent outline of the military industrial spying congressional complex and analysis of how it functions. Greed, obedience, and banal immorality play central roles. As I write these words, the U.S. Congress is missing in action, having fled Washington in order to allow a new war to begin without holding a vote on whether or not to authorize it. Weapons stocks are at record heights on Wall Street, and a financial advisor on National Public Radio was just heard recommending investing in weaponry.
Banksters come in for a healthy dose of criticism as a badvantage, as do the think tanks that just can’t stop thinking about tanks. Also exposed to the light in these pages are front groups for war interests, war supporters in religion and especially in education, patriotic festivals, news media, Hollywood, war toys, the domestic U.S. gun industry, academia, and — last but not least — people who do nothing, or “accessories after the fact.” That’s a lot of badvantages to be overcome.
Often, of course, it is after the fact — after the launching of a new war — that people come around to opposing it. For 70 years somewhere upwards of 90 percent of Americans who argue that war can be just or necessary have gone primarily to World War II as evidence for their claim. Never mind that World War II is unimaginable without World War I which nobody thinks was necessary. Never mind the support that Wall Street and the U.S. State Department gave to the Nazis for years leading up to the crisis. For 70 years people have imagined that, like World War II, some new war might be a good one. This hope has lasted for weeks or months and then faded. For most of the duration of the 2003-2011 U.S.-led war on Iraq, a U.S. majority said it should never have been started. In this sense, it is “accessories before the fact” who are hurting us the most.
Brumback envisions another way of addressing ourselves to the world, in which we would lose the idea that War #14,001 might finally be the good one that fulfills the promises of World War I and trails peace and prosperity behind its bombs and poisons. He also recommends a comprehensive series of steps to move us in that direction. This book is worth whatever you paid for it for its concluding sections alone. The creation of a Citizens Assembly is, I think, exactly the way to go, although I’m not so sure it should be national. An assembly composed of citizens of the world has potential, I believe. In either case, building such a structure is project number one. We do not need a better Obama, a change of face in a position that corrupts absolutely. We need a better Occupy, a bigger broader bolder movement that finally resorts to the most powerful tool in our arsenal: nonviolence.