Photo of Iraqui boys flashing the peace sign by Christian Boggs.
Veterans are on the leading edge of U.S. policy. They absorb the shock—for all Americans—of our choices about getting into wars. They have to confront and deal with how our nation chooses to live in the world in a very deep and personal way.
The late, great Howard Zinn, a World War II vet who was a columnist for The Progressive, wrote about Veterans Day, “I do not want the recognition of my service to be used as a glorification of war.”
He decried the fact that Veterans Day, “instead of an occasion for denouncing war, has been turned into an occasion for bringing out the flags, the uniforms, the martial music, the patriotic speeches reeking with hypocrisy.”
November 11, formerly known as Armistice Day, is the anniversary of the end of the War to End All Wars.
World War I was then the bloodiest war in history—it left thirty-five million dead and disabled, mowed down by machine guns, gassed, their bodies strewn in no-man’s land.
In the aftermath, there was a widespread belief in this country that we had to move away from war and toward peace.
Out of that came the U.S. leadership in the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which prohibited the use of war as “an instrument of national policy” except in matters of self-defense.
The promise of that moment faded quickly. War is still an instrument of national policy.
In World War I, between 60 percent and 80 percent of casualties were uniformed military. In Iraq and other modern wars, 90 percent of casualties are civilians.
Disastrous violence throughout the Middle East has generated a wave of desperate refugees fleeing to Europe. Civilians are bearing the brunt of war, injustice, and instability. This is the new face of war—of shock and awe, and the military muscle behind economic shock doctrine—that we confront today.
In his book about the history of the Iraq War, Blood on Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq, British journalist Nicolas Davies reviews the sordid history of U.S. involvement in Iraq, starting with the lies that got us there.
American politicians, the media, and the public have developed a protective amnesia that helps us forget just how outrageous some of our government’s actions are.
You may remember that our government spent a lot of time both confirming and denying that the Iraq War had anything to do with oil.
Alan Greenspan called the Iraq War “essential” to secure world oil supplies, adding in his memoir, “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: The Iraq War is largely about oil.”
David Sirota recently reported in the International Business Times on an email from Hillary Clinton’s State Department that shows Clinton told corporate executives, “It’s time for the United States to start thinking of Iraq as a business opportunity.” Clinton made the comment in a 2011 speech. The State Department email cites J.P. Morgan and ExxonMobil specifically, and calls Iraq a “market where your companies can make money,” Sirota reports. This is consistent with Bush Administration policy, which pushed privatization in Iraq to benefit U.S. corporations.
“When then-U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton voted to authorize the war against Iraq in 2002, she justified her support for the invasion as a way to protect America’s national security,” Sirota writes. “But less than a decade later . . . Clinton promoted the war-torn country as a place where American corporations could make big money.”
In Afghanistan, too, the United States has failed to protect civilians, while seeking revenge for the attacks of September 11 and defending U.S. strategic interests. Journalist Anand Gopal argues that the United States actually caused the recent resurgence of the Taliban through its ham-handed military approach.
A few years ago, a foreign policy blog put U.S. interests there in stark terms: “America, frankly, lucked out in Afghanistan. The 2001 attacks allowed America the moral ground to be in control of this vital strategic asset, this gateway between Central Asia, China, Iran, Pakistan, and India. . . . The question is whether the American mind is prepared to seize this chance the way China did with Tibet.”
In fact, the American mind is badly divided on this amoral outlook, and on the use of war as “an instrument of national policy.”
In his book, Davies uncovers our country’s cognitive dissonance on the whole idea of the rule of law in war. The United States led efforts to shape international law—the Geneva Conventions, the United Nations, and the International Criminal Court—and yet we have also flouted that legal framework again and again.
The International Red Cross did a survey in seventeen countries on “the limits of what’s permissible in war.” The People on War Report found that Americans are much more accepting of attacks on civilians—at a rate of 42 percent, twice as high as other U.N. member nations. And Americans are more likely to believe that the Geneva Conventions have “no real relevance.”
The reasons for this, Davies suggests, include our isolation from the realities of war, deliberately distorted media coverage and lack of education on war, and the corrosive effects of widespread covert action by our government. The rules just don’t seem to apply to us.
It is also hard to look at what our country is doing. We’d rather not. And the mainstream media joins us in looking away from what it means to live in an empire that defends its very broadly defined “national interests” through a policy of mass murder. It can be overwhelming to even think about it.
But we can’t pretend we are an island. And we can’t begin to improve our broken immigration system without addressing what the United States does abroad. No one brings this home more vividly than Sonia Nazario, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Los Angeles Times who wrote Enrique’s Journey, about the migration of one Honduran child to the United States.
Nazario demonstrates how U.S. foreign policy in Honduras led directly to his plight.
Honduras is the original banana republic. Our government, working with the United Fruit Company, deliberately destabilized governments in Honduras and Guatemala, helped suppress social welfare programs and the labor movement there, and ensured that big corporations could maintain a lock on vast tracts of land without paying taxes. Now we see the result, as desperately poor people searching for opportunity migrate to our country. Instead of dealing with the root cause of the problem, we are turning to militarized borders and beefed-up policing to arrest them and send them back. This is insane.
But in the movements for immigrant rights, climate stability, and economic justice, we are seeing a broader public awareness of the way violence and greed are intertwined.
“As a whole, the world has made great strides toward peace,” with a steady decline in conflict since the Cold War, Davies writes. Yet America continues to play a destabilizing role. “American militarism spreads chaos and undermines the framework of international law and cooperation.”
His book has a moving chapter by a woman veteran who writes about overcoming the psychological wounds of a particular kind of disembodied, high-tech warfare. She accuses herself of mass murder. She suffers from a deep alienation for having been responsible for something she’d rather turn away from. But she is working for peace.
In this way, she is a lot like many of us as Americans.
In fiscal year 2015, military spending is projected to account for 54 percent of all federal discretionary spending. And despite reductions in military spending in 2010, overall the Pentagon budget is still up 45 percent since 9/11. Some analysts have suggested that Osama bin Laden, in attacking the United States, was pursuing a deliberate strategy by drawing our country into a disastrous and unwinnable war. “Having seen the Soviet Union decline in large part by bankrupting itself,” through the arms race and getting bogged down in Afghanistan, “his objective was to wage economic war against the United States by drawing it into a similar conflict,” Ezra Klein wrote in The Washington Post. If that is true, our country is doing nothing to defend itself.
Imagine what could be done by reducing the nearly $600 billion we plan to pour into the Pentagon this year. Just the $32 billion wasted on canceled weapons programs between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s was more than enough to cover free college tuition for a year for every student in America.
It's time to find some better instruments of national policy.