Embracing Thanatos: The War Machine and the Bush Administration

Embracing Thanatos: The War Machine and the Bush Administration

By Dan T. Carter

Vol. 25, No. 1-4, 2003 pp. 4-5

This year, Congress is on track to approve a Bush administration defense budget of $400 billion, a figure meaning that the United States now consumes more than 45 percent of the earth’s military expenditures. And that total does not include this year’s supplemental appropriations of as much as $87 billion for ongoing military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq or the $30 to $35 billion absorbed by the secret “black budget” of the Central Intelligence Agency and other intelligence operations.

But this is only the beginning. While state and local governments scramble to maintain essential services and federal programs for the poor and working class face new restraints, Pentagon planners have outlined future increases that will lead to military expenditures of $500 billion annually by 2008-a 33 percent increase over today’s spending levels and twice the amount of the mid-1990s.

In the wake of September 11, we are told that these staggering increases are essential in order to protect American security. But even a cursory examination of the Pentagon’s budget shows that most of these escalating expenditures are for elaborate weapons systems that are useless in confronting the asymmetrical national security challenges we are likely to face in the years ahead.

If our armada of supersonic aircraft, ponderous motorized artillery and high-tech weaponry is irrelevant in the struggle to control international terrorism, it is easy to see why this war machine is so politically popular. In the 1970s and 1980s, defense contractors astutely recognized the importance of spreading the pork and they strategically located their subcontracting production facilities across the congressional districts of key Republican and Democratic legislators.

But the new war machine is particularly beloved by the Bush administration. First, it is essential in supporting the imperial aspirations of the conservative neo-imperialists who now shape American foreign policy.

Second, the lucrative and essentially non-competitive contracts offer an irresistible cash cow for the defense contractors and other corporate patrons of the Bush administration. The millions in campaign contributions they in turn pass on to the current White House occupant (and other Republican and Democratic politicians) is a minor add-on to the cost of doing business.

The aftermath of the war in Iraq offers a classic example of this inherently corrupt relationship. Five major companies–Halliburton, Bechtel, Fluor, Parsons, and the Washington Group–received billions of dollars of non-competitive contracts for post-war Reconstruction and placed themselves in a commanding position to receive the lion’s share of the $100 billion that will be spent rebuilding that war-torn country. And what do these companies have in common? They are politically well connected and they have given lavish political contributions to the Republican party.

Third, these staggering increases in military expenditures–when coupled with the Bush administration’s trillion dollar tax cuts for the wealthy-conveniently reinforce conservative demands that non-military expenditures be “restrained.” Behind a façade of “compassionate conservatism,” the Bush administration moves by stealth toward the goal bluntly outlined by conservative ideologue Grover Norquist: gradually reducing the federal government’s social programs until they can be “drowned in a bathtub.”

The events of the last two years have once again reminded us that war is always the enemy of social justice in a democratic society. But this administration already has earned a special place in historical infamy for its

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willingness to engage in what Nobel laureate George Akerlof has called “a form of looting” as it mortgages our future with its short-sighted economic policies and militaristic adventurism. The impact of this neo-imperial militarism is felt around the world provoking resentment from former allies and unalloyed hatred from those who once responded to us with a mixture of admiration and hostility.

For those of us in this country who support the broad goals of a humane social democracy, it is particularly painful to see the way in which Bush administration policies skillfully unravel a safety net slowly constructed over much of the last century.

As we transfer trillions of dollars in tax revenues to the rich and billions of dollars to weapons of mass destruction, public schools cut short their academic year, colleges, universities, and trade schools raise their tuition as much as 30 percent and the number of uninsured Americans rises past 41 million even as cash-strapped states enact new measures to eliminate the desperate poor from Medicaid rolls.

No one said it better than President Dwight Eisenhower a half century ago: “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.” A world in arms was “spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

If we can quantify the waste in economic resources, it is difficult to measure how this endless “war against terrorism” corrupts our political process by creating fear, dependency, and passivity on the part of the American people. Grappling with the difficult tasks of fighting poverty, protecting the environment, or ending racism and sexism requires complex thought, sustained civic engagement and difficult–and sometimes painful–choices.

By contrast, the war in Iraq, a short, relatively bloodless assault by our overwhelming forces on a hapless and depleted army, allowed television networks to transform bloodshed into a spectator sport, a video arcade in which death was seldom allowed onscreen. At the same time, the media–acting in concert with this administration–offered us the emotional comfort of a jingoistic patriotism driven by Madison Avenue slogans (‘The Axis of Evil,” “America Fights Back,” “Operation Iraqi Freedom”) and Manichean rhetoric (“evil-doers,” “mass murderers,” “barbarians,” and “you are with us or against us”).

Like the German soldiers who marched off to the First World War with “Gott mit uns” (God with us) stamped on their belt buckles, we convinced ourselves that we were the embodiment of all that was decent, honorable, and noble. According to Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, Bush assured him that “God told me to strike at al-Qaeda and I struck them, and then He instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did ….” But John Adams reminded us more than two hundred years ago that power “always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all His laws.”

Certainly it would be hard to argue that the conflict in Iraq and the accompanying war on terrorism has led to decency, honor, and nobility. Growing numbers of Americans have finally begun to realize that our President and his advisers have knowingly and deliberately lied to us in their rush to war. What is less recognized is the way in which the entire nature of political debate has been debased. Within a week of the blast, Bush was calling for the apprehension of Osama Bin Laden “Dead or Alive,” with a clear preference for the former. More recently, the State Department’s coordinator for counter-terrorism gave a reporter his recipe for killing Osama Bin Laden and then confirming his death to the world. “Take a machete and whack off his head, and you’ll get a bucketful of DNA….It beats lugging the whole body back!” This is the language of swaggering schoolyard bullies, and it reflects the coarsening of our foreign policy and our values as a nation.

Twenty years of covering global conflicts convinced New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges that this circle of violence was a corrupting death spiral from which neither victim nor perpetrator escaped. But in his book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, Hedges recognized the seductive power of “that process of dehumanizing the other, that ecstatic euphoria in wartime, that use of patriotism as a form of self-glorification, that worshiping of the capacity to inflict violence–especially in a society that possesses a military as advanced as ours.”

No one should underestimate the difficulties of reversing these reckless and destructive policies at home and abroad for they are sustained by an army of well-funded and ideologically committed activists who have pushed their agenda with guile and passion for more than half a century. Perhaps their greatest success has come from nurturing a sense of fatalism and passivity on the part of the American electorate, a belief that nothing can be done.

Our first task is to reject in our own thinking that very fatalism by offering an alternative vision of what we might still become as a nation. And then we must act.

Dan T Carter is Educational Foundation Professor of History at the University of South Carolina.