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Thoughts on the upcoming war (or, "Won't Get Fooled Again") (8-28-2013)

Eleven years ago, I and several hundred thousand of my fellow Americans (along with many in other nations) found ourselves on the right side of history, while the rest of the country ignored us. Worse, they despised us.

The Iraq invasion was going to happen. Every news anchor, every pundit, left or right, had already been sold on the merits of the case, all of which had of course come through official channels. No, this was not Vietnam, they said. The war was going to pay for itself with oil revenues, they said. The smoking gun would be a mushroom cloud, they said.

They said, and they said, and they said, and these talking points became indisputable facts. Dissenting viewpoints were not allowed on major airwaves, and were instead relegated to small-time regional talk shows and brief mentions on C-Span. It was going to happen, and if you said it shouldn’t, you were a monster, a traitor.

Yesterday, on NPR, I heard General Wesley Clark explaining to me how a military action in Syria would not be like Iraq. Spinning the dial, both digitally and terrestrially, I find this chorus growing. This is going to happen. And if you don’t want it to, you’re a monster.

Well, guess what. I’m a monster.

And so are many Iraq vets I know, who are also aware that this is another installment in the defense contractors’ manufactured-amnesia cycle. The last war? No, there’s no way it’ll be like that. Hell, that was a decade ago. We can do surgical strikes now. No, no, not like those OLD surgical strikes that killed all those children and made the population hate us and anything we attempted to do in their country. This is different, man.

No. It isn’t. It never is.

Kurt Vonnegut wisely noted that the war he fought in, World War II, was one of the only just wars in human history. It erased the lessons learned from World War I, which scarred a whole generation and set off a wave of revolutions, from Bolshevism to fascism to, yes, Nazism. After World War I, the world’s people had problems trusting their leaders when they told them a war was just.

It took the rise of Adolf Hitler to make people believe again that war was a necessary thing. So a new precedent was set: War DOES solve things. It eliminates evil.

Except that in the long arc of history, it doesn’t. And don’t take it from me. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler, the most highly decorated veteran of World War I, had it figured out in the 1930s:

“War is a racket. It always has been.

It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.

A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.”

How has that changed since Butler last said it? Who profited from the war I marched against in 2002? Who will profit from a war in Syria?

Yes, in 1945 we put down Hitler, an evil man. But among those who profited from that enterprise were men like Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, and—get ready for this—the Ba’ath Party in Syria, whose current leader is the man we are presently rallying to destroy.

Take a moment to read that sentence again. Bashar al-Assad (who, like Saddam Hussein, is not Hitler) is the leader of a regime that was for decades a client state of one of WWII’s winners, the Soviet Union. One war turned into another one, misleadingly called the Cold War, despite the fact that at its peak in 1962, the entire planet came within 40 minutes of nuclear annihilation.

In the decades following WWII, evil dictators around the world were given boatloads of money by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., to be on one side or another, or both at times convenient to the regime.

Why am I taking us back to the 20th century here? Because if there is one thing that Americans are terrible at, it is memory. In our cities, we bulldoze history to make way for the new shiny thing, and we discard our war lessons likewise. But just as Butler saw through the fog of war to its root causes, so too did Eisenhower at the end of his presidency, when he warned us of the military-industrial complex. And we forgot.

The next war springs from the last one. It is the same war. The same shareholders profit, and the same toll is taken from the society who is talked into it. It is a racket. It always has been.

We are only just now disentangling ourselves from the Iraq debacle. Or we think we are. What powers have the past ten years unleashed that will one day come to roost once again in the belfries of thinktanks and the paid punditocracy, driving a new president towards a newer, better war? Just like our assistance to the Mujahedeen in the 1980s helped bring about 9/11?

Already the perpetrators of the last conflict expect that we have forgotten their names. In a letter to President Obama dated just yesterday, Bush II era hawks such as Paul Bremer, William Kristol, Robert Kagan, Joe Lieberman, and—yes, really—KARL ROVE are explaining how very, very necessary it is to go to war now, now, now!! (I’m not making this up, read it for yourself here)

I know already what is coming. People are going to assail me with factoids, with reports from official sources. They’re going to assure me that this time, THIS time, it’s necessary. And they will honestly believe it. They believed it last time.

Trotting out endless lines of minutiae for partisan debate is the business of the pundit class, because it serves a purpose. Mired in arguments over this little detail or that, we do not see the big picture. This is a criminal tactic. Focus your attention on the crazy guy in front of you, and you do not notice that your pocket is being picked from behind.

While writing this letter today, I went back through the materials that ultimately convinced me to march against the last war. It is shocking how little difference there is between the two eras. In fact, I want you to read the words of Ben Cohen (co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s) at that very first march. I want you to tell me what is different between then and now:

“Now these are tough economic times for the U.S. America is on the brink of recession. Median household income is down. Poverty and unemployment are up. The huge surpluses of the last years have been frittered away on tax breaks. City, state and school budgets across the country are in shock. Retirement and college savings have been decimated.

And now the administration wants to add another 200 billion dollars to that last line on the chart. 200 billion -- that's a lot of money. What could we buy with that if we didn't have this war?

For 55 billion dollars we could provide all of our public schools with state of the art computer systems for all of our students.

For 11 billion dollars a year, we could reduce class size, kindergarten through 3rd grade, to 15 kids per class.

For 6 billion dollars a year, we could provide health insurance for all those kids who don't have any today.

For 2 billion dollars a year we could provide Head Start for the hundreds of thousands of eligible kids who can't get into the program.

For another 2 billion dollars a year, we could double funding for clean and renewable energy.

There are 30,000 children a day, around the world, who are dying from hunger. For 13 billion dollars a year, we could feed all of 'em!

There are 6,000 people a day dying from AIDS in Africa. For 10 billion dollars a year, we can curb the disease.

And for 1 billion dollars a year, we could provide complete public financing of all federal elections, allowing us to really, totally and absolutely get money out of politics -- for one billion dollars a year.

All of those things I just reeled off add up to 100 billion dollars. This war is going to cost 200 billion. We have another 100 billion left over!

The continued belligerence of our leaders saps our souls, saps our spirit, and saps our strength as a nation.”

Only the names and numbers have changed. It is still a racket. It will still sap our strength as a nation. It already has, for it is the same war. The endless war, the one that keeps the contractors employed. Names and locations aren’t important. All that matters is the flow of capital from the taxpayers to the defense industry. That must continue. Why? Because it must. Why? Because they do not have any other plans, and they own us. Our fate will be decided by their bottom line. This is not new.

General Butler would recognize the war that is presently being sold to us. He knew that his was not the war to end all wars:

“Secretly each nation is studying and perfecting newer and ghastlier means of annihilating its foes wholesale. Yes, ships will continue to be built, for the shipbuilders must make their profits. And guns still will be manufactured and powder and rifles will be made, for the munitions makers must make their huge profits. And the soldiers, of course, must wear uniforms, for the manufacturer must make their war profits too.

But victory or defeat will be determined by the skill and ingenuity of our scientists.

If we put them to work making poison gas and more and more fiendish mechanical and explosive instruments of destruction, they will have no time for the constructive job of building greater prosperity for all peoples. By putting them to this useful job, we can all make more money out of peace than we can out of war -- even the munitions makers.”

Not a word of this has changed. We point at the Assad regime and cry foul over reports of chemical weapons. How many of us watched Colin Powell lie about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in front of the United Nations a decade ago? The same beneficiaries of that lie believe that we have forgotten. It is up to you and I to prove them wrong. To let them know that we, too, can study humanity and see patterns. And to weed out those poisons without which our country and our species would stand some chance of survival.

Thus I ask that you join with General Butler and I to say once again, to the President and the Congress and to their faceless financiers, who would sell our children’s future for a few more bars of gold:


Do I believe that doing so will change the course of history? That is hard to say. But we know what happens if we don’t try.

Mo' Thoughts