If you are not dedicated to the destruction of empire and the dismantling of American militarism, then you cannot count yourself as a member of the left. It is not a side issue. It is the issue. It is why I refuse to give a pass in this presidential election campaign to Bernie Sanders, who refuses to confront the war industry or the crimes of empire, including U.S. support for the slow genocide carried out by Israel against the Palestinians. There will be no genuine democratic, social, economic or political reform until we destroy our permanent war machine.
Militarists and war profiteers are our greatest enemy. They use fear, bolstered by racism, as a tool in their efforts to abolish civil liberties, crush dissent and ultimately extinguish democracy. To produce weapons and finance military expansion, they ruin the domestic economy by diverting resources, scientific and technical expertise and a disproportionate share of government funds. They use the military to carry out futile, decades-long wars to enrich corporations such as Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman. War is a business. And when the generals retire, guess where they go to work? Profits swell. War never stops. Whole sections of the earth live in terror. And our nation is disemboweled and left to live under what the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism.” Libertarians seem to get this. It is time the left woke up.
“Bourgeois society faces a dilemma,” socialist Rosa Luxemburg writes, “either a transition to Socialism, or a return to barbarism … we face the choice: either the victory of imperialism and the decline of all culture, as in ancient Rome—annihilation, devastation, degeneration, a yawning graveyard; or the victory of Socialism—the victory of the international working class consciously assaulting imperialism and its method: war. This is the dilemma of world history, either-or; the die will be cast by the class-conscious proletariat.”
The U.S. military and its array of civilian contractors operate as enforcers and hired killers across the globe for corporations, many of which pay no taxes. Young men and women, many unable to find work, are the cannon fodder. The U.S. military has served as the handmaiden of capitalism since it committed genocide against Native Americans, carried out on behalf of land speculators, mineral companies, timber merchants and the railroads. The military replicated this indiscriminate slaughter at the end of the 19th century in our imperial expansion in Cuba and elsewhere in the Caribbean, in Central America and especially in the Philippines. Military muscle exists to permit global corporations to expand markets and plunder oil, minerals and other natural resources while keeping subjugated populations impoverished by corrupt and brutal puppet regimes. The masters of war are the scum of the earth.
It was the war profiteers and the military, as Seymour Melman has pointed out, that conspired after World War II to keep the country in a state of total war, deforming the economy to continue to produce massive amounts of weapons and armaments in peacetime. The permanent war economy is sustained through fearmongering—about communists during the Cold War and about Islamic jihadists today. Such fear mongering is used not only to justify crippling military expenditures but to crush internal dissent. The corporatists and the military, which have successfully carried out what John Ralston Saul calls a “coup d’état in slow motion,” have used their political and economic clout to dismantle programs and policies put in place under the New Deal. Brian Waddell writes of this process:
The requirements of total war … revived corporate political leverage, allowing corporate executives inside and outside the state extensive influence over wartime mobilization policies. … Assertive corporate executives and military officials formed a very effective wartime alliance that not only blocked any augmentation of the New Dealer authority but also organized a powerful alternative to the New Deal. International activism displaced and supplanted New Deal domestic activism. Thus was the stage finally set for a vastly extended and much more powerful informal U.S. empire outside its own hemisphere.
The war machine is not, and almost never has been, a force for liberty or democracy. It does not make us safe. It does not make the world safe. And its immense economic and political power internally, including its management of the security and surveillance state and its huge defense contracts, has turned it into the most dangerous institution in America.
Military expenditures bleed the federal budget—officially—of $598.49 billion a year, or 53.71 percent of all spending. This does not, however, include veterans’ benefits at $65.32 billion a year or hidden costs in other budgets that see the military and the war profiteers take as much as $1.6 trillion a year out of the pockets of taxpayers. The working and middle class fund the endless wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and a host of other countries while suffering crippling “austerity” programs, massive debt peonage, collapsing infrastructures, chronic underemployment and unemployment and mounting internal repression. The war industry, feeding off the carcass of the state, grows fat and powerful with profits. This is not unique. It is how all empires are hollowed out from the inside. As we are impoverished and stripped of our rights, the tools used to maintain control on the outer reaches of empire—drones, militarized police, indiscriminate violence, a loss of civil liberties, and security and surveillance—are used on us. We have devolved, because of the poison of empire, into a Third World nation with nukes. We are ruled by an omnipotent, corporate oligarchy and their Pretorian Guard. The political class, Republican and Democrat, dances to the tune played by these oligarchs and militarists and mouths the words they want it to say.
C. Wright Mills in “The Power Elite” warns of a military machine that not only holds the political and economic life of the nation hostage but also has the ability to form public opinion. The Pentagon spends $4.7 billion a year and has some 27,000 employees who work on recruitment, advertising, psychological operations and public relations, according to a 2009 report by The Associated Press. But millions of dollars more for propaganda are hidden within classified budgets. The Pentagon places its commentators and pundits on the airwaves, produces “news” stories for the press, has ubiquitous advertising, runs junkets for Wall Street capitalists and elected officials and manages how Hollywood and television portray war and the military. Mills writes:
… [I]n all of pluralist America, there is no interest—there is no possible combination of interests—that has anywhere near the time, the money, the manpower, to present a point of view on the issues involved that can effectively compete with the views presented day in and day out by the warlords and by those whom they employ.
This means, for one thing, that there is no free and wider debate of military policy or of policies of military relevance. But that, of course, is in line with the professional soldier’s training for command and obedience, and with his ethos, which is certainly not that of a debating society in which decisions are put to a vote. It is also in line with the tendency in a mass society for manipulation to replace explicitly debated authority, as well as the fact of total war in which the distinction between soldier and civilian is obliterated. The military manipulation of civilian opinion and the military invasion of the civilian mind are now important ways in which the power of the warlords is steadily exerted.
The extent of the military publicity, and the absence of opposition to it, also means that it is not merely this proposal or that point of view that is being pushed. In the absence of contrasting views, the very highest form of propaganda warfare can be fought: the propaganda for a definition of reality within which only certain limited viewpoints are possible. What is being promulgated and reinforced is the military metaphysics—the cast of mind that defines international reality as basically military. The publicists of the military ascendency need not really work to indoctrinate with this metaphysics those who count: they have already accepted it.
The naked greed and violence that define empire, understood by writers such as Joseph Conrad, Eduardo Galeano and Arundhati Roy, is masked within empire behind the cant of patriotism and nationalism, which sanctify self-exaltation and racism. Imperial war is transformed through the magic of propaganda into glorious spectacle. Galeano once wrote that “each time a new war is disclosed in the name of the fight of the good against evil, those who are killed are all poor. It’s always the same story repeating once and again and again.”
The hypermasculinity of the military, celebrated by Hollywood and the media, is seductive to an underclass trapped in menial, dead-end jobs. Empires feed like vultures on these pools of frustrated surplus labor. They manipulate their feelings of powerlessness. This is why capitalists create pools of surplus labor. Those who are desperate to secure a place in society are easy fodder for the military and ready candidates for underpaid jobs without benefits or job security. Our corporate, neo-feudal society is by design.
The sons and daughters of the elites rarely serve in the military. The military, even at the service academies such as West Point, attracts those who have been cast aside by neoliberalism. Often, before joining the military, they lack a clearly defined identity or sense of purpose. They are terrified of being pushed permanently into the underclass. They are especially susceptible to indoctrination. The military teaches soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines not to think, not to challenge assumptions and structures, but to obey and to be “tough” and “strong.” This hypermasculine culture glorifies the state and state violence. It renders all human beings outside the sacred national circle as objects to control or exploit. It creates a binary world of good and evil. It sanctifies violence, especially male violence. It is why rape is endemic in the military. It is why pornography and violence against women are so pervasive in the culture. Tenderness, nurturing and empathy, along with intellectual inquiry and artistic expression, are banished. The weak and the vulnerable deserve to be cast aside. Our enemies deserve to be killed. It is the culture of death. And we drink deep from this dark elixir.
W.E.B. Du Bois warns that empire was the primary tool used to break the working class in Europe and later in the United States. As workers organized and fought for rights and fair wages, the masters of empire started to shift production to countries more easily controlled, countries inhabited by “darker peoples.” This is a shift that is largely complete.
“Here, are no labor unions or votes or questioning onlookers or inconvenient consciences,” Du Bois writes. “These men may be used down to the very bone, and shot and maimed in ‘punitive’ expeditions when they revolt. In these dark lands ‘industrial development’ may repeat in exaggerated form every horror of the industrial horror of Europe, from slavery and rape to disease and maiming, with one test of success—dividends.”
Du Bois also knew that the costs of maintaining empire were offset by the profits. “What do nations care about the cost of war, if by spending a few hundred million in steel and gunpowder they can gain a thousand million in diamonds and cocoa?” he asks.
The reality of empire is nearly impossible to see from the heart of empire. Those who speak its truth are banished from the airwaves. They are condemned as traitors or “anti-American.” The cries of empire’s victims are rarely heard. The crimes that empire commits are rendered invisible. The greed of the war makers, along with the corruption and dishonesty of the political, judicial, academic and media courtiers who serve empire, is blocked from public view. The image of empire is scripted like a Walt Disney movie. This mythical narrative is disseminated in films, on television, by the press, in churches, in universities and by the state. It is a lie. But it is a lie that works. And it works because it is what we want. It appeals to our fantasies about ourselves: that we are a virtuous people, that God has blessed us above others, that we have the highest form of civilization, that we have been anointed to police the world and make it safe, that we are the most powerful and righteous nation on earth, that we are always assured of victory, that we have a right to kill in the name of nationalist values—values determined by our naked self-interest and that we conveniently define as universal.
Noam Chomsky, more than perhaps any other American intellectual, has laid bare the latent forces of totalitarianism in our midst and warned us against the contagion of empire. He says:
Those with deep totalitarian commitments identify the state with the society, its people, and its culture. Therefore those who criticized the policies of the Kremlin under Stalin were condemned as “anti-Soviet” or “hating Russia.” For their counterparts in the West, those who criticize the policies of the U.S. government are “anti-American” and “hate America”; those are the standard terms used by intellectual opinion, including left-liberal segments, so deeply committed to their totalitarian instincts that they cannot even recognize them, let alone understand their disgraceful history, tracing to the origins of recorded history in interesting ways. For the totalitarian, “patriotism” means support for the state and its policies, perhaps with twitters of protest on grounds that they might fail or cost us too much. For those whose instincts are democratic rather than totalitarian, “patriotism” means commitment to the welfare and improvement of the society, its people, its culture. That’s a natural sentiment and one that can be quite positive. It’s one all serious activists share, I presume; otherwise why take the trouble to do what we do? But the kind of “patriotism” fostered by totalitarian societies and military dictatorships, and internalized as second nature by much of intellectual opinion in more free societies, is one of the worst maladies of human history, and will probably do us all in before too long.
There can be no rational debate about empire with many desperate Americans who have ingested this as their creed. The distortion of neoliberalism has left them little else. Here lies the virus of fascism, wrapped in the American flag, held aloft by the Christian cross and buttressed by white supremacy. It is a potent and dangerous force within the body politic. And it is growing. The real enemy is within.