Land of the Free
By Leslie W. Dunbar
Vol. 13, No. 3, 1991, pp. 1-5
In the New York Times on July 14, Vaclav Havel called for a continued American “presence” in Europe, as a “guarantee of peace and stability.” He of course meant a military presence, as in NATO. Havel is an authentic hero. He is, however, no longer one of us. He is one of them. My dichotomy is a simple one: those outside the circles of power (us) and those including President Havel who are within. The people with power want stability–and so do I–and they have not the courage to break the age-old habit of thinking of that as impossible without military forces.
All too likely, by the time these lines appear in print George Bush may have made another violent strike against Iraq. Or some place else, inhabited by people poorer than we, felt by Washington to require disciplining. If so, he will have used for that men and women who have chosen warfare as their occupation, many or most because they could find no other decent paying jobs. The rewards are better and, in actions such as Panama and Iraq, the risks to body less than, say, in coal mining or farm labor. The old ways of power will have been served. The poor of the United States will languish still and the poor of the rest of the world–as one of the managers of
the whole world’s economy are we not responsible for them too, at least somewhat?–will sink deeper.
One night last winter I found myself wanting a novel Like others must, I own books I’ve never read, and this night I pulled from the shelf one that had been there unread for years, an old C. P. Snow, Corridors of Power. My reading of it occurred while the United States was in the midst of its war against Iraq, and the book and the daily news pressed and scratched against each other in my thoughts about that episode of American “manifest destiny,” our national creed which endows our expansionist desires with claims of moral right.
Do people still read C. P. Snow? They did in the 1950s, and into the 1960s. He wrote a number of books, and I had years back read a couple. Their protagonist is Lewis Eliot, who Snow has moving at the center of university, economic, and political establishments of post-World War II Britain. The stories (at least those I’ve read) are about the making of decisions. Snow specialized in detailing the complexity of the process, and because his own career gave some authenticity o the fictional Eliot, the reader may feel that really it does work this way. The decision-making will be a mingling of sincere convictions, ambitions, animosities, friendships, personal problems–financial, sexual, etc.–and, of course, economic forces that vie with each other. Corridors of Power, published in 1964, is liked that. Its stage is set in the late 1950s, and the plot is woven around the effort of a Cabinet minister to steer British policy away from strategic nuclear weapons. The way to the novel’s outcome will be through intersecting paths of disputes among scientists, marital break-ups, loyalty checks, personal and also personal vindictiveness, personal weariness and distractions, political advantage-seeking, defense contractors’ policies, the
intimations from across the ocean of the Eisenhower administration’s displeasure, and more rye likely now forgotten. And by an uncanny coincidence, just as George Bush was leading the world into the dark of his new world order, I was reading in Snow’s novel about the British mid-Eastern fiasco of 1956, when with the French and the Israelis they had sought to take back control of the Suez “Countries, when their power is slipping away, are always liable to do idiotic things. So are social classes. You [Eliot was addressing two Americans, one rich] may find yourselves in the same position some day.”
I don’t propose to join the debate over whether American power is declining. We seem to be militarily unchallengeable now, though whether that will endure! don’t know nor care to speculate. I hope it won’t.
In economics–this world’s other primary form of power–were strong enough, I suppose, though to my inexpert eyes there seems a lot of flab and weak legs. Certainly we are no longer the world leader and even controller we grew used to being during the 1950s and 1960s.
Accepting the call to exultation
As I’ve said, I don’t know about our power, its present or future. What the Iraqi War made clear is that we have no right to the power we do have. We were called by our chosen and approved leaders to hate and to exult in ruthlessness, and we accepted the call. Congressmen and Congresswomen greeted Mr. Bush and his lieutenants when they in victory later walked among them like pimply adolescents at a pep rally, cheering their football champions. And in the streets, people have done the same, with a seemingly unsatisfiable appetite. These have been depraved days.
They have nowhere been more so than in the South. It is perhaps not fair to employ Mr. Lewis Grizzard as a representative type, although the massive number of his readers argues that it is fair.
* From Grizzard’s column as it appeared in the Raleigh News and Observer, March 27, 1991 (midway through what Christians call Passion Week).
This is patriotism become barbarism, the despisal of those unlike and weaker than we. The Cold War, which we have congratulated ourselves on “winning,” was against an opponent of strength. No longer have we that test Now we can dominate, unchallengeable: “The thrill is back.” We have committed ourselves, when and as we determine there is need, to warring without cease. What sort of C. P. Snow-like decision process, what mixture of personal and other motives, led George Bush and his few associates to send, by their mainly unchecked order, a half-million youth off to the Arabian desert to slaughter and destroy?
Do we have to concede that this is now the American way? That devotion to violence is the example we intend to set for the peoples of the world, replacing the example of democracy we used to boast of setting?
John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address January 20, 1961
George Bush, National Security Strategy of the United States, March 1990
There is no essential difference of policy between
these two presidential statements, thirty years separated; nor has there been much between the two parties in their practice of foreign policy. Steadily, progressively, our foreign policy becomes an extension of military policy, a world-wide assertion that we can and will put down any power that dares challenge us. What strategists like to call our “vital national interests” are today simply that. With the close of the Cold War, we have gone “beyond ideology” in a new sense: power is the only end, power to do what we want.
The military is now our basic business
This is wrong, in and of itself. Our government in its folly and its distorted values neglects our poor, our schools, our public infrastructure, our God-given natural environment. But even if it did not, even were this society perfect at home, our obsessive absorption in militarism would be morally and civilly unbearable. John Kennedy’s memorable Inaugural Address had in it hardly a word about domestic issues or needs (not even civil rights). All its visioning was beyond our borders. The difference, such as it is, between him in 1961 and George Bush thirty years later is the removal of the cloak of old ideology around the thrust of power.
What the years since the Kennedy administration have led to is that the basic business of America has become military power. The life of society may go on as freely as people want, so long as military power has its supreme right. The American achievement is a militarism that is compatible with an open society” within the polity, but an open society first limited to the “mainstream” of non-poor and non-dissenters from our “manifest destiny.”
Americans seem to love the military. Militarism is not something imposed on us. At least in these days–maybe it wasn’t so in the 1930s, maybe it won’t be so later on–Americans are infatuated with it. Not long ago I drew up at a stop light behind a car with an official North Carolina license tag that said simply, “Pearl Harbor Survivor.” Perhaps other states too do something like that, treasuring these marks of baffle. What had the man done at Pearl Harbor? Never mind; he was there. This past winter we glorified the youth going off to Iraq, calling these semi-mercenary troops sent at least half on hire to protect dictatorships and the price of oil, carriers in their generation of freedom’s torch. The symbolism is overpowering. On Memorial Day 1990 I was at the coast. The Norfolk Virginian Pilot I read then unintentionally summed up the essence of contemporary America perfectly by the three top placements on its front page: a report on the holiday’s parade, headlined “For young, a lesson in price of freedom”; a picture of a stunningly, ethereally pretty Navy wife and her two all-American boys–“We came this morning to let the boys have an understanding of what it takes to have a free country”; and-thirdly–a report under the headline “Many states cut food aid for the poor.” This was months before the Iraqi crisis. We were ready for it, even yearning for it. We can’t get away from all this. Not from the love of the military. Not from the presence of the poor, either.
It has not been the Lewis Grizzards who have taught us to be militarists. We modern Americans have been taught this by an imposing intellectual and academic elite, one that established a “politically correct” standard that has through the press and television and other instruments of popular culture–such as “fundamentalist” churches and popular singers–been truly and pervasively formidable. Leading us all have been the intellectuals. Not before in American history have they so united to lead and approve governmental policies. The Council on Foreign Relations, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the Rand Corporation, a dozen more such have drummed into our consciousness for half a century the necessity of war readiness and of the arms and men and commanders and executive powers to insure that. War readiness has been the elites’ message to common folk, and they got the teaching through well. They have inhabited America’s “corridors of power.” and have radiated influence throughout the society.
Use for the guns will always be found.
War is not a rational option. If ever it was, it is no longer. When consequences of action are predictably unpredictable and uncontrollable (as they were and are in Iraq), choice of those actions is irrational. The consequences of war are unpredictable, uncontrollable. We shall, no doubt however, continue to make war. Those of us who oppose war will–we must realize this well–never be proved right. Never. And time after time, when force is used, we shall be disparaged. Our “fate” is to carry on a losing struggle. One which also steadily moves from the center to the margins of public debate. Before we entered NATO in the early 1950s, there was remarkable public and congressional debate: creating now a new “NATO” with the Gulf states is seen merely as an option of military planning. Of real authority, Congress has about as much today as had the Roman Senate under the Empire.
The men and women of power–even the occasional good men among them like Havel–will ceaselessly talk about the need for force to preserve “stability.” about the “price of freedom.” about the “peace process.” and all those things which translate into guns in their hands. Use for the guns will always be found.
It may, however, be worth remembering, worth it even for our statesmen, that 1991 is the fiftieth anniversary of one of our modem testamentary statements, Roosevelt’s Four Freedom Address: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. Wars beyond count or compare have been fought since that great declaration of hopes for the world’s people. Whatever these fifty years may have proved, they have beyond a reasonable person’s doubt proven that war is not useful for the attainment worldwide of those freedoms.
So though we who oppose warring will not be proved right, we shall go on witnessing, in sadness and anger, the ruthless despoiling of freedoms, the environment, and the poor’s chances for decent lives that wars, too many in our own name and more yet from our policies, will surely bring to humanity.
Leslie Dunbar, a former executive director of the Southern Regional Council and of the Field Foundation, is the author of Reclaiming Liberalism.