Archive for August, 2009

The Necessity of War

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Obama says Afghanistan is a “war of necessity,” but what he’s really talking about is the necessity of war, the institutional mandate that keeps our armies continuously engaged, with or without a legitimate reason. To all appearances, Obama’s casus belli in Afghanistan is mostly personal. Like the coach of a successful athletic team, he looks at the contest as a “must-win” proposition. The fans are depending on him. They won’t accept defeat. Since his team isn’t winning this one, his only hope is to prolong the contest. But there’s more to it than that.

It’s almost a law of nature that military power begets warfare. Armies must engage in combat to keep the ranks tight, to keep the blood flowing so that fighting spirit doesn’t ever ebb, and to keep the money flowing, so that the profiteers are happy and the civilians are kept poor enough to bargain away their kids. There are weapons and tactics to test, foreign resources to exploit, and potential adversaries to frighten. These are the obligations of military power, and they can’t be discharged without a continual state of war and a compliant public. That’s where the President comes in.

If Obama were a courageous man, he would acknowledge that his armies are exhausted, that their mission can’t be achieved by force of arms, that the people at home–the fans–have lost interest in the contest. But Obama, like the rest of our leaders, is not a courageous man. He’s a pampered prodigy who must demonstrate his bravery and resolve vicariously. This qualifies him perfectly to keep the pampered public pliant. After all, if he were not a noble, virtuous and responsible leader, would young people willingly sacrifice everything for him?

A better question might be whether the sacrifices really are made willingly. Put yourself in the boots of the modern warrior. Separated from home and family for months at a time. Friends dead or maimed. Word from home only in bits and pieces. Experience so upsetting it can’t be discussed. Fear and dread all day and all night. Moral and ethical limits evaporated. Peers getting ahead, settling in to permanent lives. No end in sight. And for what? For America? For the folks back home?

What do the folks back home even know about Afghanistan? What do they know about the last ten kids who got killed there? Not their names or their towns or their jobs or the circumstances of their deaths, and we don’t care to know either. When they die, we call them “troops,” not soldiers, reducing them to the status of machinery. Do we think the average GI hasn’t noticed that nobody really cares what happens to him? Transformed by the bloodshed and sheer brutality of their experience, soldiers can’t talk to their families except by censoring out everything that matters. As for the families, they eventually quit accepting the grim logic of military life, that there’s some higher purpose in the sacrifice they make.

Imagine yourself the mother, wife or child of a soldier in Afghanistan. Struggling to maintain normality in a splintered, anxious family, simmering amidst the chaotic culture and values of the civilians around you, who so skilfully evade even the tiniest sacrifice for any higher purpose, you soon feel embarrassed to be giving up so much for them. You try to understand how sane people like you and your soldier could have become involved in such a senseless enterprise, and you’re exposed to constant discussion–sometimes all in your own head–about whether your GI cares more about his buddies than his family. A nation that would call on a tiny, self-denying minority to bear the entire burden of warfare–is that a nation worth defending? Do we think military families don’t notice that nobody really cares about their sacrifice?

Obama doesn’t mention any of this when he talks about his war of necessity. That’s because of the character of the necessity. War is not only a political prop; it’s also a profitable business and an effective diversion. If the leaders can continue to maintain the illusion that it’s a sporting event, an entertainment, a contest of gladiators, they can distract attention from the looting of our treasure by their patrons, relatives and financiers.

We’re forced to concede Obama’s point, acknowledging that war is an utter necessity in our system. It’s not just militarism and the ego satisfaction that comes with the glorification of the leaders, but it’s also the money that can be made by the people who control the leaders. Win-win. Except for the grunts carrying the carbines. Better hope they don’t discover justice and train their rifles on us.

Are We Old Enough Yet?

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

The people who sell health insurance and drugs have been deploying paid hacks like the ex-governor of Alaska to convince the public that national health insurance will result in the extermination of the nation’s senior citizens. It’s a preposterous claim and typical of the kind of disinformation big business routinely dispenses to influence public policy. National health insurance won’t lead to euthanasia, but other social forces might. If you’re a “baby boomer,” born during the twenty years following World War II, you might someday have to answer for the catastrophic injury to the earth that occurred on your watch. The question, “Haven’t you lived long enough?” might well come up. We may see a time when surviving to 100 is not considered a good thing.

It’s a fact that most of us are not producing much by age 60 or so and are net consumers for the remainder of our lives. By 80, most of us are dependent on others for day-to-day assistance, and many of us are sick or demented and unable to function without skilled nursing or medical care. Twenty years from now, on my 84th birthday, climate change and chronic water shortages will put extreme pressure on food supples, even as population growth swells demand. Malnutrition could become as common in the USA as consumer debt is today. The peers of my grandchildren will almost certainly be asking whether it’s right that the people who despoiled the earth and caused the famine should continue to receive sustenance.

In the days when elders were wise, respect came with advanced age. Those days are gone. The elders of tomorrow will be regarded as a lazy, pampered, wasteful, complacent and violent lot, who sold out their country and trashed the world. The rich ones are likely to be separated from their property by their offspring, even as the rest of us exhaust our resources to survive. Once the over-70 crowd is reduced to poverty, it’s a short step to ending it all. If you doubt this, visit the nearest nursing home. Have a peek at the quality of life you can expect when you’re dependent on others for everything. Suicide will become a sacrament. On Grandparents’ Day, couples will coo to each other over the gifts and greeting cards that arrive from their heirs: “Look, Mother, it’s that Oregon vacation we’ve been dreaming about!”

The “sanctity of life” to which so many now pay lip service will yield to a new, Malthusian ethic. “What goes around,” people will say, “eventually runs out.” We might continue to allocate resources according to who succeeds in war and commerce, but war takes the young, commerce favors the old, and 21st Century youth don’t care to shed blood or go hungry for their elders, as earlier generations have done. In the old days, seniors had the decency to die while they were still able to hold a spoon. Today we live to 80, 90 and beyond, and servants have to be employed to keep us from soiling ourselves. The new generation might not be so willing to sacrifice its kids so that geezers can continue to defecate.

Fare is Fair

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

If you took a poll of all the people waiting at bus stops within a five-mile radius of your house, you wouldn’t find many who could take advantage of “cash for clunkers.” Most people can’t handle payments on a new car, even with a $4,500 cash subsidy from the federal government. If you were to examine the incomes of the creditworthy people getting the subsidy, you would find that we’re giving the money to a lot of people who don’t need it.

In the meantime, the bus-riders go out of pocket two, three, four dollars just to get to work and back. If we’re going to be subsidizing transportation, why not subsidize the bus-riders, who are more likely to be in need and who consume lots less fuel per mile than the people buying new cars? We ought to pay their fare, at least. It would probably turn out to be a fraction of what we’ll shell out for new cars, and it could have some beneficial effects on the economy and the ecology.

Why are new-car subsidies OK, but not fare subsidies for transit riders? Because if it doesn’t enrich the “haves” at the expense of the “have-nots,” we can’t have it. No bailouts for workers. No national health insurance. No daycare. No mass transit. No more public water fountains, rest rooms, swimming pools, hospitals, banks, gardens, meeting places, electric utilities or even functioning schools. No free lunch. No pay, no play.

The “haves” tell us we don’t want free medical care and we definitely don’t want no-fare public transportation, because we really hate socialism. At least we would if we knew what it was. The “haves” know very well what socialism is, and they explain it to us much as a shaman explains the meaning of life. We understand that free healthcare would leave us more money for food and shelter, but the voice of commerce blares incessantly that with free stuff—or any of the other trappings of socialism—there would be neither food nor shelter, because everybody would quit working. And so we allow these folks to continue to rake in money selling us what we ought to be getting as taxpayers. What we get as taxpayers is to pick up the tab for war and the gambling debts of crooked bankers.

Don’t look now, but socialism is transforming the rest of the world, and 20th-Century practice, including knee-jerk hypercapitalism, is an anachronism. Forward-looking socialists in Asia, Europe and South America are melding commerce and social welfare in ways that produce higher levels of public satisfaction than have been seen here in a good long time. It may be in the short-term interests of the rich to sell me what I ought to get free, but over the long term, it’s a wasteful and undemocratic way of organizing an economy. The rest of the world has discovered this, but Americans, inundated as we are with advertising and disinformation, are compelled to cling to foolish and superstitious notions of what is and isn’t in the public interest.