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Trump’s foreign Policy: An end to American hegemony?

23 Jun

Writing in The American Conservative, Andrew Bacevich notes a post-Trump nostalgia for a world order characterized as, “Liberalism, along with norms, rules, openness, and internationalism: these ostensibly define the postwar and post-Cold War tradition of American statecraft.” He goes on to note that such a view leaves out a few things:

Or, somewhat more expansively, among the items failing to qualify for mention in the liberal internationalist, rules-based version of past U.S. policy are the following: meddling in foreign elections; coups and assassination plots in Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, Cuba, South Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, and elsewhere; indiscriminate aerial bombing campaigns in North Korea and throughout Southeast Asia; a nuclear arms race bringing the world to the brink of Armageddon; support for corrupt, authoritarian regimes in Iran, Turkey, Greece, South Korea, South Vietnam, the Philippines, Brazil, Egypt, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and elsewhere—many of them abandoned when deemed inconvenient; the shielding of illegal activities through the use of the Security Council veto; unlawful wars launched under false pretenses; “extraordinary rendition,” torture, and the indefinite imprisonment of persons without any semblance of due process.

A bit later:

Prior to Trump’s arrival on the scene, few members of the foreign-policy elite, now apparently smitten with norms, fancied that the United States was engaged in creating any such order. America’s purpose was not to promulgate rules but to police an informal empire that during the Cold War encompassed the “Free World” and became more expansive still once the Cold War ended.

Rather

Trump’s conception of a usable past differs radically from that favored in establishment quarters. Put simply, the 45th president does not subscribe to the imperative of sustaining American hegemony because he does not subscribe to the establishment’s narrative of 20th-century history. According to that canonical narrative, exertions by the United States in a sequence of conflicts dating from 1914 and ending in 1989 enabled good to triumph over evil. Absent these American efforts, evil would have prevailed. Contained within that parable-like story, members of the establishment believe, are the lessons that should guide U.S. policy in the 21st century.

Trump doesn’t see it that way, as his appropriation of the historically loaded phrase “America First” attests. In his view, what might have occurred had the United States not waged war against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and had it not subsequently confronted the Soviet Union matters less than what did occur when the assertion of hegemonic prerogatives found the United States invading Iraq in 2003 with disastrous results.

In effect, Trump dismisses the lessons of the 20th century as irrelevant to the 21st. Crucially, he goes a step further by questioning the moral basis for past U.S. actions. Thus, his extraordinary response to a TV host’s charge that Russian President Vladimir Putin is a killer.

Concerning the Trump resistance:

Say this for the anti-Trump resistance: while the fascism-just-around-the-corner rhetoric may be overheated and a touch overwrought, it qualifies as forthright and heartfelt. While not sharing the view that Trump will rob Americans of their freedoms, I neither question the sincerity nor doubt the passion of those who believe otherwise. Indeed, I am grateful to them for acting so forcefully on their convictions. They are inspiring.

Not so with those who now wring their hands about the passing of the fictive liberal international order credited to enlightened American statecraft. They are engaged in a great scam, working assiduously to sustain the pretense that the world of 2017 remains essentially what it was in 1937 or 1947 or 1957 when it is not.

The Nation State as an Agent of War

29 May
Tyler Cowen has a recent post consisting of the abstract to a working paper by Alberto Alesina, Bryony Reich, Alessandro Riboni, “Nation-Building, Nationalism and Wars”. Here’s that abstract:
The increase in army size observed in early modern times changed the way states conducted wars. Starting in the late 18th century, states switched from mercenaries to a mass army by conscription. In order for the population to accept to fight and endure war, the government elites began to provide public goods, reduced rent extraction and adopted policies to homogenize the population with nation-building. This paper explores a variety of ways in which nation-building can be implemented and studies its effects as a function of technological innovation in warfare.
Here’s a link to an ungated version of the paper.

Does this imply that as long as the nation-state is the focal-point of political organization we will be fighting wars? Is that why that United States has managed to engage itself in useless and immoral wars since the end of World War II? Perhaps it’s time we create other ways to organize our political life.

Here’s several opening paragraphs from the paper:

The interplay between war and the fiscal capacity of the state is well known. However, guns are not enough to win wars; one also needs motivated soldiers. In modern times, the need for large armies led to a bargain between the rulers and the population. The elite had to make concessions to induce citizens to comply with war related demands. Rulers promoted nationalism to motivate citizens and extract “ever-expanding means of war – money, men, materiel, and much more – from reluctant subject populations” (Tilly, 1994; see also Levi, 1997).

The “ancient regimes” in Europe used to fight wars with relatively small armies of mercenaries, sometimes foreigners, paid out with the loots of war. As a consequence of the evolution of warfare, countries changed the conduct of war, switching from mercenaries to mass armies recruited or conscripted almost entirely from the national population. Roberts (1956) explained how warfare underwent a “military revolution” starting between 1560 and 1660 and reaching a completion with the “industrialization of war” (McNeill, 1982) that occurred in the nineteenth century. The source of this revolution was due to changes in tactics and weapons, such as, the use of gunpowder technology and the invention of new styles of artillery fortification, higher population growth, changes in communications and transport technology which allowed states to put a large army in the field, and the adoption of techniques of mass weapon production. The electromagnetic telegraph, developed in the 1840s, allowed the deployment and the control of the army at distance. Steamships and railroads moved weapons, men and supplies on an entirely unprecedented scale (Onorato et al., 2014). In the middle of the 19th century, the adoption of semiautomatic machinery to manufacture rifled muskets made it possible, and relatively affordable, to equip a large number of soldiers (McNeill, 1982, p. 253). As a result, the size of armies increased and, as Clausewitz (1832) put it, “war became the business of the people”.

This paper examines nation-building in times of war. Mass warfare favored the transformation from the ancient regimes (based purely on rent extraction) to modern nation states in two ways. First, the state became a provider of mass public goods in order to buy the support of the population. Second, the state developed policies geared towards increasing national identity and nationalism. In particular the states had to hold in distant provinces to avoid the breakdown of the country, which would have interfered with war effort, and to motivate soldiers and civilians located far away from the core of the country. In addition, nation-building in times of war also included aggressive negative propaganda against the enemy and supremacy theories.

When the armies had to increase in size, the elites needed to build tax capacity. This is a well studied point as we argued above, and we return to it at the end to close our argument. We focus here on a different issue, the selection on how to spend fiscal revenues to motivate the population to endure wars. The composition of spending is quite relevant. For instance Aidt et al. (2006) argue that total spending as a fraction of GDP did not increase that much in the 19th century up until WW2. What mostly changed was the composition of the budget: in the 19th century and early 20th century, spending on defense and policing was partly substituted by spending on public services (transport, communication, construction) and later on public provision of public goods (education and health).

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Peace Now! War is Not a Natural Disaster

3 Aug

Department of Peace

Over at 3 Quarks Daily my current post reproduces a section of a slender book I’ve put together with the help of Charlie Keil and Becky Liebman. The book collects some historical materials about efforts to create a department of peace in the federal government, starting with at 1793 essay by Benjamin Rush, one of our Founding Fathers: “A Plan of a Peace-Office for the United States.” It includes accounts of legislative efforts in the 20th century and commentary by Charlie Keil and me. The book is entitled We Need a Department of Peace: Everybody’s Business; Nobody’s Job. It’s available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble in paperback and eBook formats.

Below the peace symbol I’m including the Prologue, which is by Mary Liebman, an important activist from the 1970s. The book include other excerpts from the newsletters Liebman wrote for the Peace Act Advisory Council.

one of them old time good ones

War is not a Natural Disaster

The human race knows a lot about how to make war. We should: we’ve been doing it since Biblical times. Experts define “war” as any conflict in which the dead number more than 3,000 people. Below that number – by revolution, insurrection, armed exploration, native uprising, clan feud, violent strikes, lynching, riot, excessive partisanship of soccer fans, or plain personal murderousness – none of that counts until more than 3,000 people have been slaughtered. Then it gets in the record books as a war. Disregarding our barbarian ancestors, the Attilas and Genghis Khans for whom war was a way of life; overlooking two centuries of carnage in nine Crusades, and the Hundred year’s War, which occupied France and England for 115 years, just looking at the world since Columbus discovered America, we find that the world has been at peace less than half the time, and the wars are getting bigger and worse.

Out of this collective experience with war, we’ve learned how to do it. Homer left notes. We have the memoirs of generals and statesmen from Caesar down to modern times to guide us. There are textbooks to study. And almost everyone in government has served in the armed forces or some other war-connected duty. They understand it.

By contrast, what do any of us know about how to make peace? Nobody has ever done it. Until Hiroshima, few people talked very seriously about doing it. The Bomb changed things forever. We began to realize that no nation would ever again fight through to glorious victory. The celebrations, the cheering crowds in Times Square, the church bells ringing and the bands playing – those are sounds that belong to history. They will never be heard again at the end of any war, anywhere, by anybody. So while we are not better men than our ancestors, and maybe not much smarter, we are faced with the necessity of making peace – and nobody knows how.

Well, let’s start with what we do know. In any public undertaking, from building a dam to putting a man on the moon, we start by hiring somebody to be in charge. We give him an office, a staff, a desk, a typewriter, a telephone. We give him a budget. We say, “Begin.” It may come as something of a shock to realize that in this vast proliferating federal bureaucracy, there is no one in charge of peace. There is nobody who goes to an office in Washington and works 9-to-5 for peace, unhampered by any other consideration or responsibility. […]

War is not a natural disaster. It is a manmade disaster, directed and carried out by ordinary people, who are hired and paid by other ordinary people, to make war. It will stop when ordinary people decide that, whatever satisfactions and rewards war may have offered in the past, the risk is now too high and the return too low. If you are ready to invest in a new and exciting American enterprise, you can start by spending an hour telling your Congressman why you want a Department of Peace.

* * * * *

Mary Liebman published these words on the first two pages of the February 1973 issue of PAX, the newsletter for the Council for a Department of Peace (CODEP). It was a message she had been honing for two years and would continue for three more. We note that back then it was true, as she said, “almost everyone in government has served in the armed forces or some other war-connected duty.” That’s no longer true. Conscription ended in 1973 with the eventual result that most people in government are too young to have faced the military draft or to have friends and relatives who did.

Table of Contents

Prologue: War is not a Natural Disaster
Mary Liebman 2

What’s in this Pamphlet?
Bill Benzon 4

A Plan of a Peace-Office for the United States
Benjamin Rush 6

Comments on Benjamin Rush’s Proposal
Bill Benzon 9

Why a Department of Peace?
Fredrick L. Schuman 12

Peace is Everybody’s Business; Nobody’s Job
Mary Liebman, Bill Benzon 29

Waging Peace
Charlie Keil 36

Resolution for a Department of Peace
Charlie Keil 42

Appendix: List of Selected Peace Organizations 44
About the Authors 46

The Time Has Come for a Department of Peace

14 Dec

Over at 3 Quarks Daily I’ve posted The United States Needs a Department of Peace. The idea was first proposed in 1793 by Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and has been frequently proposed over the last century (Wikipedia). Starting in 1935 a number of bills have been introduced introduced into Congress, most recently by Dennis Kucinich as H.R. 808. It was re-introduced in the 114th Congress on February 26, 2015 by Barbara Lee as H.R. 1111.

I devote most of my 3QD post to the text Rush’s proposal, but introduce it with some commentary on the allegorical paintings he proposes for the room that would house his proposed Peace Office. He also proposed that the following assertions be posted on a sign above the door to the War Office:

1. An office for butchering the human species.
2. A Widow and Orphan making office.
3. A broken bone making office.
4. A Wooden leg making office.
5. An office for creating public and private vices.
6. An office for creating public debt.
7. An office for creating speculators, stock Jobbers, and Bankrupts.
8. An office for creating famine.
9. An office for creating pestilential diseases.
10. An office for creating poverty, and the destruction of liberty, and national happiness.

Waging Peace

18 Nov

By Charlie Keil

This was written over a decade ago and hasn’t  been updated, yet. But the basic thrust is as valid as ever.

Contradictions (a short introduction to “Waging Peace”)

I am adding this introduction to “Waging Peace” plus a “free copyright” notice to encourage its circulation, and sending it out again because it seems more obvious each day that time may be running out. IF the next rounds of terrorism here hit a few nuclear power stations and chernobylize big portions of east and west coasts, IF more bacteria and different kinds of bacteria are released, etc. etc. etc. and IF the West keeps acting out the scenarios of retaliation scripted by terrorists, then this country will not have the resources to help solve the world¹s problems even if it should eventually summon up the common sense, common decency, and the willingness to do so.

Diction = what is being said. Contra = against. We need to counter what is being said about the “war” on terrorism and challenge the assumptions behind this diction.

The old Marxist sense of the word “contradiction” must be remembered too; at certain points in time the dialectics, the oppostional forces, become so glaring and obvious that people will act in order to change the world system before it kills them.

You know it is time to “look at the contradictions” and to speak out against what is being proposed as a solution in the centers of power when:

  • the rich are obscenely rich and the poor are desperately poor all over the world;
  • world militarism (800 billion annual budget) is sucking up diminishing resources and destroying the biosphere and this “consciousness” experiment we call humanity;
  • 40,000 children die each day of starvation and preventable diseases;
  • many fields needed for food production are filled with landmines;
  • topsoil is flowing down all the rivers of the planet;
  • ozone layer, global warming, pollution levels disappear as issues because we are “at war” and now we really just don¹t have time for these deeper underlying problems;
  • deadly bacteria sent by Bush Sr. from Rockville, Maryland to Iraq in the 1980s may be returning to Washington D.C. to threaten Bush Jr. and the rest of us;
  • your home and backyard could be irradiated by the next terrorist attack.

This list could be much, much longer.

There is another long list, of cleansings or “administrative massacres” about to happen in Europe, Asia, Africa: against the Roma in any one or more of half a dozen east European and Balkan countries; against the Chinese or the next minority in Indonesia; against the Pagans and Christians of southern Sudan for the tenth or fifteenth time; as I write, the news reports 100s killed in Benue State Nigeria where we lived for two years ­ again, the list of ongoing and potential scapegoats is long and getting longer. I don¹t believe that the UN or the regional organizations are ready at this moment either to prevent these events within states or to attempt an intervention once they get started. Looking back, the Saddam Hussein regime should have been sanctioned and arrested after the gassing of Kurdish villages in 1988. Intervention was 8 years late in Greater Serbia. No one intervened in Rwanda. The illegal and ineffective missile attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan by the Clinton administration in response to embassy bombings in East Africa should have told us that the era of “war” with inappropriate technology was over. We don¹t know how to stop cleansing or terrorism, twin evils that threaten to plunge all of us into chaos. Continue reading

Nuclear War: What are the Boundaries of the Real?

12 Jan

Last week I asked whether or not exoplanets are real. Sure, we can learn about it through a high-tech instrument up in space, and so know that, yes, it’s out there. But how real can it be if there’s little or no chance that we’ll ever go there? In the sense of “real” that interests me, the Moon became more real when Neil Armstrong set foot on it. And Mars became more real when we landed the first instruments on it, though not as real as the Moon, or real in the same way.

Tyler Cowen’s prompted me to have similar thoughts about nuclear war. He’s posted some remarks on Elaine Scarry’s book about thermonuclear weapons, and one of his commenters posted a link to a NYTimes review of that book by Richard Rhodes. The weapons are fully real in the sense I’m exploring. We’ve created them and we’ve tested them. We know that they work.

And we’ve used atomic weapons in war, two of them on Japan at the end of World War II. But that’s it, so far. During the so-called Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union built up huge stockpiles of nuclear and thermonuclear weapons, but we never used them, though we may have come close at times (I’m thinking in particular of the Cuban Missile Crisis).

Why not? asks Richard Rhodes:

Why no one has dared, so far, is probably the crux of the matter, but that is not a story Scarry chooses to tell. Why we Americans collectively agree to tolerate concentrating world-destroying power in the hands of one fallible human being is another story Scarry bypasses, though it goes a long way toward explaining the peculiar logic or illogic of accumulating weapons so destructive that our only hope of surviving them has been to prepare to strike first and destroy an enemy’s weapons before he has time to launch them against us. Why our elected leaders continue to believe that such genocidal weapons are legitimate and moral in our hands, but illegitimate and immoral in the hands of our enemies, rather than eradicating them from the earth, as we did smallpox, is yet another mystery Scarry chooses not to investigate.

That somehow strikes me as in the same zone, broadly conceived, as my questions about the reality of planets we can know about, but cannot walk upon. Continue reading

Crimes Against Family: What do Bill Cosby and the United States Military have in Common?

28 Nov

I’m sure I watched I Spy a time or three back in the day, but I didn’t watch it regularly. I DID watch The Cosby Show regularly. My all time favorite bit was when the dad and the kids lip synched a Ray Charles song – “The night time, is the right time” – for mother, with little Rudy being particularly delicious. I also appreciated the fact that Cosby would have jazz musicians on the show. His father-in-law was played by a jazz musician, singer Joe Williams. He had Dizzy Gillespie on one show and, much to my delight, he had Frank Foster on another. I’d studied improvisation with Foster when he taught at UB (that is, the State University of New York at Buffalo).

As much as I am a fan of anyone – which isn’t all that much, fandom isn’t how I roll – I was a fan of Cosby’s. I was a bit startled when he started coming down hard on the lifeways of some poor black folks. Understand him, yes. But it seemed a bit harsh, especially in the overall ecology of racial attitudes and discussion. Is that how Cliff Huxtable would speak?

And then he was accused of rape. I don’t recall precisely when I first heard about that, but it was awhile ago, well before the current round of accusations. Was it before or after he’d become Mr. Public Morality? I don’t recall. The accusation certainly didn’t seem consistent with the behavior of Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable. Cliff, of course, was just a fiction, a part Cosby played. But we do tend to identify performers with the parts they play, as though that’s what they are like in real life.

Of course, I know that Cliff was just a role. As a performer myself I’m keenly aware of the difference between one’s performance persona and one’s “real” self. Give me a trumpet and put me on stage with at kick-ass rhythm section and I’m Mister Confident Superhero Sex God John the Conqueror, but in real life I’m shy, reserved, and ridiculously intellectual, though leavened with a bit of wit. So I never actually believed that Cosby played himself when playing Heathcliff, but nonetheless, Heathcliff became my default for Bill Cosby himself.

The upshot: those accusations were dissonant. At this point I don’t recall what I thought of those accusations back then. I’m pretty sure my initial reaction would have been denial. I’m also sure that I thought about it beyond that initial denial. Mostly likely I just put the accusations on a mental shelf without either denying or affirming them in my mind.

That’s not possible now. There are too many accusations. I think he did it. Continue reading

It’s Time for America to Reinvent itself Top to Bottom

17 Nov

But that’s not what I titled this month’s article at 3 Quarks Daily. I gave it a somewhat more provocative title, American Craziness: Where it Came from and Why It Won’t Work Anymore. The craziness is why America has to reinvent itself.

The core of my argument somes from an article I read in my freshman year at Johns Hopkins, “Certain Primary Sources and Patterns of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World” (full text online HERE). Parsons argues that life in Western nations generates a lot of aggressive impulses that cannot, however, be satisfied in any direct way. Why not? Because Western society is highly hierarchal and there is a great deal of aggression from superiors against inferiors, who cannot, however, respond in kind because to do so would be dangerous.

What, then, can those social inferiors do with their aggression? Well, they can let it rot their spirit and, eventually, their bodies as well. And that does happen. But they can also direct their aggression at external enemies. That happens as well.

This has certainly been the case in America. The Cold War was more of a psychic release mechanism for the nations involved – America included – than it was a collision of rational foreign policies East and West. But, as I point out in the 3QD piece, American had developed a sophisticated variation on the mechanism that was organized around slavery.

The institution of slavery in effect gave America an internal colony against which white Americans could direct their aggressive impulses. And when slavery was banished, institutionalized racism kept that colony in place. While the Civil Rights movement certainly changed the legal parameters of that social mechanism, and had real and beneficial effects in the world, the mechanism is still alive.

But, really, as I argue in the 3QD piece, this baroque contraption is ready to fall apart, hence the deadlock in America’s national politics.

I do something else in that piece, however, something of a more theoretical nature. I push Parsons’ argument a bit further than he did. As his title notes, he was arguing about Western nations, not nations in general. Yet anyone who finds his argument convincing can see that the mechanisms he describes are not confined to the West. They’re ubiquitous. Continue reading

A Marx Brothers Analysis of America’s War Craziness

11 Sep
I grew up watching Groucho Marx on his “You Bet Your Life” television show. My father assured me that the Marx Brothers films were the funniest ever. But I didn’t get to see any of them until I went to The Johns Hopkins University, which had an excellent film series curated by Richard Macksey.
Then I saw at least some of their feature films and laughed myself silly. My favorite, and certainly one of their best, is Duck Soup (1933). It’s about war between two minor nations, Freedonia and Sylvania, with the four brothers playing both sides of the conflict against the muddle.
Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly, who is installed as head of Freedonia by Mrs. Gloria Teasdale, played by Margaret Dumont, Groucho’s foil in several films. I won’t go into the absurd intricacies of the clap-trap plot as I’m interest in only one scene, the scene where war is finally declared between Freedonia and Sylvania.
duck soup 1 chico in the dock
Chicolini (Chico Marx) is on trial in Freedonia for spying. Firefly has, for whatever reason, decided to act as his defense council, though he’s the one who caught Chicolini. This that and the other happens and the news comes that Sylvania troops are at the Freedonia’s border. This causes some distress as “war would mean a prohibitive increase in our taxes”—maybe back then, but not now; now we cut taxes and spend even more money on undeclared war. There’s some wordplay on “taxes” and “dollars” = “Dallas, Dallas, Texas.” It’s eerie, you’d think those guys were reading the future.

To War! America’s National Psyche

11 Sep

I’m reproducing a set of notes I wrote up during the 2000 Presidential Election. I’m republishing them now in recognition of yet another turn in the long-spinning wheel of American mythology.

Everything is connected to everything else and the causal forces meeting in the historical present stretch back into the past without end. Figuring out where to start is not easy. My sense is that we need to focus our attention on the dissolution of the Soviet Empire in the late 1980s. That left the nation without a national scapegoat, thus radically altering the nation’s psycho-cultural landscape. We no longer had Ronald Reagan’s Evil Empire to kick around.

As some of you may know, my thinking on these matters has been strongly influenced by an essay Talcott Parsons published in 1947 on “Certain Primary Sources of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World”. Parsons argued that Western child-rearing practices generate a great deal of insecurity and anxiety at the core of personality structure. This creates an adult who has a great deal of trouble dealing with aggression and is prone to scapegoating. Inevitably, there are lots of aggressive impulses which cannot be followed out. They must be repressed. Ethnic scapegoating is one way to relieve the pressure of this repressed aggression. That, Parsons argued, is why the Western world is flush with nationalistic and ethnic antipathy. I suspect, in fact, that this dynamic is inherent in nationalism as a psycho-cultural phenomenon.

For the most part I have used Parsons, and others as well, in arguing about the nature of racism in the USA. While Africans were brought to this country for economic reasons it seems to me that during, say, the 19th century African Americans increasingly assumed a dual psychological role in the white psyche. On the one hand, they were a source of entertainment. On the other, they were convenient scapegoats, as became evident with the lynchings that emerged during Reconstruction and continued well into the last century. That is to say, African America served as a geographically internal target for the ethnic and nationalist antipathy Parsons discussed.

Thus we have the thesis in Klinkner and Smith, The Unsteady March (U. Chicago, 1999). They argue that African Americans have been able to move forward on civil rights only during periods where the nation faced an external threat – the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and the major wars of the first half of the 20th century. When the external danger had subsided, gains were lost. From my point of view, they’re arguing that, when external danger looms large and demands attention, the citizenry can focus aggression there and so ease up on the internal colony. Beyond this, of course, it becomes necessary to recruit from the colony to fight the external enemy, both physically and propagandistically – be kind to your black citizens when you fight the Nazis, etc.

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