Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Lessons we should have learned

Throughout our history two strands have coexisted uneasily; a dominant strand of democratic humanism and a lesser but durable strand of intolerant Puritanism. There has been a tendency through the years for reason and moderation to prevail as long as things are going tolerably well or as long as our problems seem clear and finite and manageable. But... when some event or leader of opinion has aroused the people to a state of high emotion, our puritan spirit has tended to break through, leading us to look at the world through the distorting prism of a harsh and angry moralism.

--J. William Fulbright, The Arrogance of Power, 1966

Although Senator Fulbright joined the pack in impeding civil rights in the 1950s—certainly no small flaw in history’s judging eyes—a number of his beliefs were ahead of his time and courageously adherent to the “strand of democratic humanism.” In 1954, he was the only senator to vote against an appropriation for the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Wisconsin senator and communist witch-hunter Joseph R. McCarthy. In 1961, he made serious objections to President Kennedy about military intervention in Cuba before the Bay of Pigs invasion. And, after initially voting in favor of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Fulbright came to be a flip-flopper of the most historically valuable kind, speaking out against the wide and unforeseen latitude given the president and military, the justification for war, Congress’s failures of oversight, and the impulses which spurred action in the first place. John Kerry, eat your heart out. (It was, interestingly, in one of Fulbright’s 1971 Foreign Relations Committee hearings that Kerry, then a Vietnam veteran, spoke out against the war.)

Fulbright was alone in many of his battles, a staunch crusader who did not let peers or popularity force him to stand in line. If Eisenhower had still been president in the 1970s, however, Fulbright would have enjoyed more company.

It was President Eisenhower who provided the initial warning against the rise of the military-industrial complex and the unchecked expansion of the Defense Department. He reminded us:

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.

As his career shows, Fulbright shared this cautious approach to the nation’s “military machinery.” He spoke out against the unprecedented amount of power placed in the hands of President Johnson’s military generals, and more widely condemned what he considered was the Defense Department’s brainwashing of the public to accept militaristic, Cold War values.

It appears obvious, despite the prescriptions of these two men, that the military-industrial complex of the United States is larger than it has ever been. I wrote on August 3 of the security firm Blackwater USA, a company that has earned roughly half a billion dollars in controversial government contracts for providing security in Iraq and eight other countries. This company is a revealing lens through which one can observe the intertwining of administrative bureaucracy, military hierarchy and corporate wealth. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the interdependence shared amongst these three entities has served to make contemporary military conflict extraordinarily profitable—and arguably more frequent.

Blackwater Vice President Bill Mathews responded to the posting, placing his company within the context of a larger historical trend of privatization within the army. There is (and always has been), in other words, a large and much-needed role for civilians to fill within the military, particularly in the innovation and implementation of new technologies. His claim:

If our next president is to off-handedly dismiss the American economy from participating the military industrial complex, both the military and the economy will suffer. One of the reasons our country is so great is because our economy propels it forward.

True as it may be, the observation dodges the heart of the issue, which is the military-industrial complex provides huge economic benefits to only a few, at the expense of most U.S. citizens, and makes security as a business an end in itself. His emphasis on the need for a strong economy is not surprising, given how well Blackwater has done financially in the past few years. Notably absent are the real reasons this country is so great: democracy, freedom, the Bill of Rights, and so forth. Furthermore, the connection drawn between the military-industrial complex and the larger American economy is dubious at best; in the past eight years, the former has done well for itself, but the dollar is in a freefalling downward spiral.

With the Cold War over, President Clinton’s election in 1992 saw the gradual downsizing of the American military. Mr. Mathews claims this development created a void that companies like Blackwater, simple participants in the free market, had to fill:

During the 1990s, President Clinton elected to drastically downsize the military. Mind you, at the time, it may have been the right decision for the country that President Clinton made. I don't believe in using 20-20 hindsight to criticize past decisions. However, the situation is now such that all of us who got out in the 1990s are now needed again.

What Mr. Mathews is prescribing in no uncertain terms is a return to a Cold War-level of military preparedness, although in a privatized manner that would surely bankrupt this country. This is as inappropriate as it is unwise. In 1989, the subject of America’s military attention was the Soviet Union. At that time, fully a quarter of the Soviet population (71.7 million people) was engaged in some way in military activities, active or otherwise. Today, the Soviet Union no longer exists—and the country that used to comprise most of it is (technically) our ally. Are we to believe that the destructive potential of al-Qaeda, the people who attacked us on September 11, 2001, is anything like this, or that it has the backing of the world’s second-largest economy? These notions are laughable, and those who benefit from such a fear-mongering conceptualization are laughing all the way to the bank.

Some wish to take us back in time with Cold War ideology and angry moralism in order to perpetuate the “Global War on Terror.” Ike and Fulbright must be rolling over in their graves. Sorry, guys; we should have paid attention.


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