As my disgust with Barack Obama’s speech Tuesday night settles in, I am remembering back to 2001. Obama sought to recall this, to remember, he claims, “when this war began, we were united – bound together by the fresh memory of a horrific attack, and by the determination to defend our homeland and the values we hold dear.”
I have a different memory. I was driving across the Pacific Heights neighborhood in San Francisco, towards the Arguello gate of the Presidio. I heard George W. Bush’s voice on the radio, saying something that I took as code suggesting the missiles had already been launched. I was wrong about that; the U.S. move into Afghanistan would come later. But I was screaming at the top of my lungs inside my car (with the windows rolled up), NO!
I didn’t know anybody in New York City. I didn’t know anyone in Afghanistan. But my reaction to this was much more vehement than to the 9/11 attacks that had occurred so recently. I screamed it again and again, NO!
You see, even then, and I had not yet returned to school, had not gotten my Bachelor’s degree or my Master’s degree, had not yet become nearly as radical as I am now, I was thinking what a war would do to the people of Afghanistan. When we speak so easily of “a battle for hearts and minds,” we forget that this battle cannot be pursued by military means, that we would just anger more people, that we would just increase the danger to our own country. And of course, this is just what happened. al Qaeda was a neoconservative-invented name for an organization that barely existed. So Bush would say something and al Qaeda would recruit some people. Osama bin Laden would release a video and people in the U.S. would get fired up. In a vicious cycle that both enhanced presidential power and lent credibility to Osama bin Laden, each side got what it wanted: more followers.
And civilians in the United States, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq were the losers. We killed over a million people in Iraq; millions more live in exile. In Afghanistan, we kill far more civilians than we do Taliban fighters; there are fewer than 100 al Qaeda fighters there, so we conflate al Qaeda with the Taliban and carry on killing. And in the United States, we have reduced our civil liberties and incurred a vast debt fighting two ill-conceived wars that now appears to preclude any real relief for the unemployed.
Bob Herbert opened his column this week with this:
“I hate war,” said Dwight Eisenhower, “as only a soldier who has lived it can, as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”
He also said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”
I would add something from Eisenhower’s Farewell Address:
Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet, we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
At this particular moment, I’m thinking these may nearly have been the last intelligent words of a U.S. president. Even when we get intelligent people into office, such as Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, they behave like idiots, on the level of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
The Federalist Papers, especially no. 10, make clear that the game of U.S. governance was always a game stacked against ordinary people. Howard Zinn, in A People’s History of the United States, tells of recurrent uprisings and of an ongoing battle by the wealthy to protect their privileges. And Adam Curtis, in a series shown on the BBC, and available on DVD, “The Century of the Self” (parts 1, 2, 3, and 4), shows how the wealthy now appear to have won that battle.
But just as victory in Afghanistan is an impossible illusion, so this victory of the wealthy cannot be sustained. In 1962, John F. Kennedy warned wealthy Latin Americans, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” It was Martin Luther King, Jr., five years later, who applied those words to a “world revolution.” The question now is which will it be–peaceful or violent?